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Gov. Mike Beebe was the leading headliner of 2006, but readers and staff also contributed some names of other Arkansans who helped shape the state for better or worse.
Darren McFadden: All-American, winner of the Doak Walker Award as the best running back in America, finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Houston Nutt: A 10-win season after two losing seasons allowed him to regain popularity with most fans — or at least diminish unpopularity — and it appears he’ll be Arkansas’s coach for the foreseeable future. But he was embarrassed by late-season reports of friction between him and certain freshman football players, one of whom left the Razorbacks.
David Matthews: The Rogers lawyer kept the heat on the legislature to make the state system of public education better and more equitable.
The Arkansas Supreme Court: Same as Matthews but with more clout. And they added honor to their Lake View school ruling with rulings against pork barreling by the legislature and against discrimination against gay people in foster parenting.
Jim Holt: Hated by some, including the Establishment, the conservative and controversial politician from Northwest Arkansas tapped into anti-alien sentiment to build a sizeable following and drew lots of media attention in his race for lieutenant governor.
Bill Halter: With a million bucks of his own money, the newbie politician managed to stave off a nightmare (a Lt. Gov. Jim Holt) to become the state’s second banana after years of mostly living out of state.
Judge Wendell Griffen: He drives some of his judicial colleagues crazy, as well as the state board that governs judicial conduct, but there’s no stronger believer in and practitioner of free speech, even at considerable risk to himself.
Mike Wilson: The Jacksonville lawyer and former legislator took on the job of challenging out-of-control pork barrel spending by the legislature as unconstitutional local legislation. He won a landmark victory in December that could change the course of the 2007 legislature. He did the work for free, by the way.
Alice Walton: The Wal-Mart heiress is leading the establishment of a world-class collection of American art for the coming Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville. Art world snobs have sniffed at such an institution in Arkansas and some have howled about the purchase of long-treasured works from cities around the country. We say, y’all come see us sometime.
Lee Scott: The CEO of Wal-Mart undertook a charm campaign to counteract organized Wal-Mart critics. Though global in scope, the effort produced local results, including a new public affairs office in Little Rock, easier media access and some sales strategies — such as a push of energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs — that could bring meaningful results. Try though he did, the company had mixed results in re-engineering store product mix to attract more upscale customers. Wal-Mart customers want low prices first, last and always. For fashion, they still prefer Target.
Mike Huckabee: His 10-year reign as governor ended with some more unfortunate headlines about his propensity for gathering tributes from friends and political supporters. And his thin skin prompted him to bar the Arkansas Times from taxpayer-financed press services and his political events. But we’re not so petty as he is. We note that he’ll take a solid record of populist governance — bigger spending on schools and health care and an expansion of the government work force, plus notable efforts on education and compassion for immigrants, into a long-shot Republican primary race for president.
James Valley: In the first year of Helena-West Helena’s unification, the mayor forged an identity for the new city, cooled longstanding tensions among black and white residents, made some notable progress in improving public schools and economic development, and presided over a relatively smooth consolidation of municipal services.
Katrina transplants: Hundreds, maybe thousands, decided to become permanent residents of Arkansas during 2006, opening restaurants, enrolling in schools, contributing culturally and economically, and enhancing the life of their newly adopted communities.
Kathy Webb: The new state representative from Little Rock (district 37) won her seat after many hard miles of door-to-door legwork, thoughtful discussions on issues and with an unassuming and attentive manner, strengths she knew were more important — and would be understood as more important — than her sexual orientation.
Lu Hardin: The president of the University of Central Arkansas marketed the school up a storm, increasing his school’s enrollment and clout — and no small amount of resentment among others in the higher educatioin community.
John Walker: Age hasn’t slowed his aggressive advocacy of minority interests and he played an important political role in producing a majority black membership on the Little Rock School Board. That made him, again, public enemy No. 1 among certain members of the business community, an animus reminiscent of the years he was suing them over discriminatory employment practices.
Michael Marion: The general manager of Alltel Arena brought the Rolling Stones for a March concert that was the biggest gross in state history. At year’s end, Alltel ranked 42nd in the U.S. and 60th in the world among concert venues.
Amy Lee, lead singer, Evanescence: Lee and her band’s sophomore release on Wind-Up Records, “The Open Door” (which hit stores in October), drew critical raves from throughout the rock industry, and the first single, “Call Me When You’re Sober,” also was a hit.
The Good Samaritans (nominated by staffer David Koon): Late one frigid night early in 2006 — back in the days before this writer saw the wisdom in a cell phone — I managed to mire my pickup truck, back wheels down, in a muddy ditch beside a particularly dark back road on the outskirts of Warren, Ark. (don’t ask how we came to be in such a predicament, I’d just lie anyway). After reluctantly leaving wife and son and walking a quarter mile, I came upon a peeling house at the edge of a swampy field. Though the hour was drawing nigh upon midnight, I was welcomed in by a man and his wife, both bleary-eyed and dressed in their nightclothes. They offered coffee, the warmth of their fire, and — most importantly — a telephone. After coming up empty on the two tow services in town, my host finally got through to his brother-in-law, the owner of a dump truck and a log chain. Should I point out that I am white, while the man and his wife were black? In a perfect world, it shouldn’t matter. It surely didn’t that night. My family and I were soon out of the ditch and on our way. The money I offered for the couple’s help was kindly declined.
Over the years, I’ve found that there is a kindness to the people of this state, the brand that only comes from having known trouble and hardship. That said, here’s to those who help. They’re the true heroes.