Small-town Arkansas was by no means a clear choice to be this year's Arkansan of the Year.
Some others considered by the Times staff, and some nominated by our readers, included:
WESLEY CLARK. Yes, the retired general is running for president. Yes, he burst on the scene as a serious contender and, at least until the Southern primaries are over, he can't be ruled out as the Democratic nominee. Yes, a number of Clintonites, hoping to recapture a little of that old campaign magic, have rallied to his cause. Yes, though not born in Arkansas, he's a Hall High School graduate and he chose to retire in Little Rock after an illustrious Army career that ended as NATO chief.
But … If Clark is from here, he didn't offer much evidence that he's really "of" here, aside from the occasional Hog call. The Arkansan of the Year must have had great impact on the state in the preceding year. Clark brought some new excitement and a campaign headquarters to Little Rock, which are not insignificant things. But, still, 2004 seems more likely to be the critical year for assessing his lasting impact on the state. The solid prospect of another presidential library here (presuming he wouldn't choose West Point or some other way station on his career) would certainly count for something.
GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE. The governor is always a lightning rod. This particular governor has won our award before. And there's a strong case he should be cited again. A man not prone to admit mistakes admitted a couple last year by supporting school consolidation and, depending on the plan, higher taxes to pay for better schools. He was not grudging about his change of heart. Indeed, his rhetoric was inspiring to the tiny band of progressives willing to do almost anything to lift the prospects of the state's children. But did he lead successfully? The evidence on this critical question is mixed. He couldn't line up critical Republican votes in the House for consolidation or taxes. He took absolute control of the Republican Party, then disavowed any responsibility for the party's financial distress. Even as the special school session ground toward futility, Huckabee did little of the arm-twisting and deal-making that governors with legislative sessions ahead of them can do to turn reluctant lawmakers to their cause.
SEN. JIM ARGUE. He spent another tireless year in invariably calm and good-humored pursuit of better schools.
FRANK BROYLES. Who's the daddy of the University of Arkansas? None other than the ageless athletic director, who beat back Chancellor John White's effort to retire him and whose allies on the Board of Trustees trampled faculty sensibilities by passing a rule intended to make it easier for dumb jocks to transfer to Fayetteville.
HOUSTON NUTT. Only in Arkansas. A decent 9-4 season for the Razorback football coach was good enough to merit a $2 million job offer in Nebraska, one step ahead of an Arkansas radio talk show posse that wanted to string him up for perceived mediocrity. Now we have Nutt for good, maybe as the next athletic director, presuming Broyles ever dies.
DAVID MATTHEWS- A champion of the public schools while he was in the legislature, the Lowell lawyer has continued the fight for quality education as a private citizen, representing two Northwest Arkansas school districts in the big lawsuit and warning of more legal action unless the legislature acts in timely fashion.
WENDELL GRIFFEN - A member of the state Court of Appeals, the feisty Griffen waged a spirited and eventually successful fight for freedom of speech for judges.
WALTER HUSSMAN and JIM WALTON. In a situation notable for its lack of effective leaders - the school debate - these two business titans emerged with an agenda and the money to back it up. Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and other media properties, and Walton, Hussman's partner in a Northwest Arkansas newspaper combine and heir to Wal-Mart billions, pushed for a school grading system, with a heavy reliance on standardized testing to decide which schools should live and which should die. Their money and clout brought a majority of legislators to their cause.
TRUDIE KIBBE REED. The president of Philander Smith College kept scoring more contributions to build still more new facilities at the historically black college. Typical of movers and shakers everywhere, she ruffled a few feathers (on the faculty, notably) along the way.
JO LUCK. What if the Little Rock-based organization she heads, Heifer International, really could end world hunger? It won't be for lack of trying. Luck triumphantly announced groundbreaking of the organization's enviro-friendly new world headquarters, in the shadow of the rising Clinton Presidential Center.
SKIP RUTHERFORD. The boss of the foundation building the Clinton library had a new gimmick just about every week to promote the coming library and, not incidentally, the neighborhood that surrounds it. Big crowds visited temporary exhibits he masterminded in the Cox Center of the Central Arkansas Library. The library is to open in November.
THOMAS MCLAUGHLIN. We thought we were living in the 21st century until we heard about 14-year-old Thomas McLaughlin's treatment at Jacksonville Junior High School. After a teacher overheard McLaughlin refuse to deny that he was gay to another student, McLaughlin was outed to his parents by a school guidance counselor. As if that wasn't bad enough, Thomas and his parents say that he then endured a year of faculty-fueled torment, during which various administrators and teachers quoted scripture on the damnation of homosexuals, called him "abnormal" and disciplined him by making him read the Bible - all of which he was forbidden to talk about, along with any mention of his sexuality. It took the help of the ACLU and U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele (and another black eye for Arkansas on the national stage) to remind McLaughlin's educators that the classroom doesn't include a pulpit.
SPC. DUSTIN MCGAUGH, 20; M. SGT. KEVIN MOREHEAD, 33; NAVY CORPSMAN MICHAEL VANN JOHNSON JR., 25; PFC JONATHAN CHEATHAM, 19: Revenge, oil, liberation, foolhardy bravado or making the world a safer place. Whatever reason you give as to why the United States is involved in the ongoing conflict in Iraq, there is always one irrefutable fact: Brave young Americans are dying over there. In 2003, four Arkansans gave their lives for the cause.
AMY LEE. It was a breakout year for the lead singer of the popular rock band Evanescence. It was also a breakup year, as Little Rock guitarist Ben Moody left the group to pursue individual projects.
BRYAN DAY. The Little Rock parks director was elected to the Little Rock School Board, too. But his fans nominated him for his friendly, open style and his devotion to Little Rock in the face of overtures from bigger cities with stronger financial commitments to parks.
The rising Latino community drew attention in several nominations. DR. EDUARDO OCHOA was nominated for his leadership in the Latino community, particularly the Hispanic Health Initiative. He's an assistant dean at UAMS. He, along with Drs. Cesar and Lilia Compadre and Michel Leidermann, editor of El Latino, were mentioned, too, for roles in founding La Casa, a nonprofit multi-racial and multi-religious service organization.
A friend nominated MARIE ACRE for more than 50 years of working in public schools, most recently as a librarian in Guy-Perkins Schools.
DR. DAVID RANKIN, president of Southern Arkansas University, was nominated for a growth spurt at SAU that includes the largest public project in Magnolia history, a $13 million campus and community center.
LARRY CARPENTER, who redeveloped the Holiday Inn Presidential Center, was lauded for his early vote of confidence (not to mention a significant investment) in a redeveloping downtown Little Rock.
BUDDY COLEMAN. The friendly face of Coleman Dairy can be counted on to turn up in just about any crowd dedicated to a community project, said one of his admirers.
DR. THOMAS BRUCE, a physician and temporary dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, barely has enough hours in the day for his philanthropic and charitable interests, including the Arkansas Community Foundation, Wildwood Park for the Performing Arts, Heifer International, Garvan Woodland Gardens and Watershed.