Father’s treasure full of surprises

By: Clay Henry
Published: Saturday, January 20, 2018
A bobblehead of the late Orville Henry is shown on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018, at the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette office in Springdale.
Photo by Ben Goff
A bobblehead of the late Orville Henry is shown on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018, at the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette office in Springdale.

Kirby Shofner sent me a message through Facebook in October asking that I drop by his Little Rock home ahead of the induction of my father and his stepfather, Orville Henry, into the Southwest Conference Hall of Fame.

I don’t do much with Facebook. I had no idea there was a “Messenger” at Facebook. I stumbled upon it in early January. After a few dozen emails alerts that I had unread messages, I wondered where?

I don’t tweet or use other social media. So saying I don’t communicate with “Messenger” can’t be a surprise. I have mastered texting and can even send an emoji. Is that not enough?

Kirby and I never lived together in the home that my father and his mother — my stepmother — made in either Fayetteville or Malvern. We did become close (like brothers), only to drift apart after their deaths — my dad’s in 2002.

The message from Kirby was touching. He wanted to present me with many of my father’s treasures, most that I didn’t know existed. He filled up my truck on the way back from a duck hunting trip last week.

As soon as I pulled out of Little Rock, I called my wife to report that my study at home was going to need re-arranging. The “mother lode” of my father’s stuff was on the way home.

There are many treasures, including things that I didn’t know existed, such as my father’s Eagle Scout sash. It was folded and stored in a plastic bag. I didn’t know he was a scout.

There were also many more items that I didn’t know existed, or pertained to my father. He was in the first 100 at Boys State when that organization began in 1940. There was a file on that, plus a column he wrote in 1990 when he spoke at the 50-year anniversary.

It was interesting that he polled the 100 at the 1990 Boys State with a simple question: SEC or SWC? There were 70 for the SEC. In that column it was revealed that the SWC payout per school in 1990 for the previous calendar year was $600,000. That was for a year when Arkansas went to the Cotton Bowl, Final Four and won nine SWC titles.

There are 65 years of personal letters in the files. Some are amazing, like the thank you note from Nebraska coach Bob Devaney after the Razorbacks beat his Cornhuskers in the 1965 Cotton Bowl to clinch a national championship.

Alabama, which lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl that year, had been named national champion by The Associated Press at the end of that regular season. Arkansas was the nation’s only undefeated team, prompting The AP not to vote until after the bowls the following year.

Devaney mentioned the possibility of a spring golf date with Broyles and my father, plus a clear and concise statement that anyone who did not recognize Arkansas instead of Alabama as champion was misguided.

Devaney wrote, “Some of these magazines will do anything to sell copies. I personally think the University of Arkansas should be rated No. 1.”

I have made it through files A, B, C and D. It will take months to devour everything to Z. The Ds were wonderful.

There are personal thank you notes from LSU’s Paul Dietzel, Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd, Texas’ Darrell Royal, Tennessee’s Doug Dickey and Missouri’s Dan Devine. That Royal’s letter was in the Ds tells you that he was just Darrell to my father.

One D letter stood out: A long, typed thank you from the United States Golf Association penned by Joseph Dey, Jr., the executive director. It came in May 1955 after Steve Creekmore of Fort Smith sent Dey an OH column entitled “The Game of Golf — and Our Game.” Usually, columns were attached to the letters, but I didn’t need to see that one.

That column was written to emphasize that there is only one way to play golf: hole every putt and play the ball as it lies. Dey was writing to ask if it could be the lead item in the next USGA Journal. Nothing ever made my father more proud. He told me about it when I turned 16 — 15 years later — when I suggested we should move the ball in the fairway on a winter day with no turf.

There are wonderful newspaper clippings from my father’s early days as sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette. He was promoted at age 19 when Ben Epstein left the paper for a job in New York. The rest of the staff had enlisted for World War II. My father was “underweight” and turned away when he tried to enlist in the Navy with his four brothers.

I had known that, but not how underweight. Epstein covered that in his introduction for the new sports editor on Sept. 7, 1943. Here is Epstein’s lead:

“Ladeez and gentlemen — Introducing the new sports editor of the Gazette — Standing five feet, six inches — wearing purple trunks — weighing 102 and a half, deskweight — Mr. Orville Henry.”

Epstein later explained it was a meteoric rise from apprentice to editor in 18 months in what amounted to skipping the freshman through junior semesters of the normal life of a newspaper career. Epstein said he is still two years away from voting, but he is “just the most level-headed and discriminating reporter yours truly ever watched in action. Somewhere along the lines he became cognizant of the necessity of giving both sides an even shake. The rest is easy.”

I will forever be in debt to Kirby, and also to his stepdaughter, Olivia Davis. I refer to her as a niece and my daughters count her as a cousin. My father called her a granddaughter. It’s a little confusing, but we will just say that Olivia provided the last treasure of the mother lode.

It’s a “Big O” bobblehead that she had crafted to present to Kirby “because he liked cartoon characters.” It made its way onto my father’s desk for a bit, then back to Kirby when he died. Kirby and I both think it should join many of the other remembrances of our father in an exhibit that Kevin Trainor designed for the south end zone concourse of Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

The likeness is uncanny. He’s got a golf glove on his left hand, a club at his side. Olivia can’t recall who made it or when. The back story will just have to come another time.

Some have asked about other stuff, like my father’s golf clubs. There is a great story there.

I visited my father often in the last 18 months of his battle with pancreatic cancer. You didn’t know when it would be the last. He did.

I got a call just a few weeks short of his 77th birthday. Would I come to Malvern for golf? I rushed to his house, as he knew I would.

The routine for my dad before golf was always the same, he’d polish his black leather spikes. He wanted to look sharp and that was an important part of the outfit, as big as his Masters caps.

I polished his spikes that night like never before. We were to head out early the next morning to Malvern Country Club for nine holes. After polishing his shoes, we walked to the driveway and loaded them along with his golf bag into my SUV.

Just before bedtime my stepmother found me. She said, “You know he’s too weak for golf. He’s giving you his golf clubs.” It wasn’t a total surprise, but it was so sad.

Sure enough, the next morning, we headed out for breakfast at a nearby diner. We got back in the vehicle and he said, “Back home. I just wanted to make sure you end up with these golf clubs. I won’t ever play again. The shafts are a little whip-like for your swing, but they might fit you in a few years. That’s a good putter.”

In that bag was a set of early Callaway metal woods fitted for him by Mike Dunaway. The irons came from Tommy Bolt. The putter was from his brother Bill. And there were old balata Augusta National golf balls from Jack Stephens. Oh, yes, that was the mother lode.

There were no tears that day, only great stories and laughter. We talked about his lectures when I came home with a broken driver, chunked on the 17th tee at Riverdale Country Club. We re-visited the day Stephens had our names pulled for the media round the day after the 1982 Masters.

My dad revealed then that it was his insistence to Stephens that I would play the Sunday tees from the previous day, instead of the short members tees. I had to putt out quickly, trot to the next tee as to not hold up the next group while two sets of tees were played in our group.

I would have reached my goal that day except for playing the back tees. I tried (and failed) to reach the 13th and 15th in two shots. Our caddie said I would have easily gotten home in two from the “up” tees. In fact, he said both times, “You really should lay up here, but if you hit a great shot, you might make it and you are never going to be here again.”

Two splashes later, my father smiled and said, “I’d have done the same thing, but you aren’t going to break 80 now.” Yes, he knew my goal. He always knew what was in my head on the golf course.

There was one more great story from my father that last morning we talked golf. He wanted me to know that I’d driven him crazy when I was playing tournament golf in college, most notably during an under-par day at War Memorial Park in the Fourth of July tournament.

What? I didn't even know he was there. He watched through field glasses from afar. He said there were five tee shots that were struck and immediately followed by a march to the pines. Only after 240 yards did I come out.

I revealed, “That was what Uncle Bill taught me to do in the heat, get to the shade to avoid over heating later in the day.”

There was great laughter then. He had forgotten that his younger brother did that when he "sweated" his golf matches as the best player in Little Rock in the 1950s.

“Just don't ever do that again,” he said. “It drove me crazy when he did it and when you did it.”

No, there was no talk of the Razorbacks that day. I'm sure that surprises some, but not those who really knew my father. It was golf that he dreamed about. Almost all of those letters from those legendary football coaches had handwritten post scripts about golf. They knew him.

I've all but given up golf. I finally realized why a few years ago thanks to some insight from my wife.

“You played golf to spend time with your dad,” she said.

Here's thanks to Kirby Shofner for helping me spend quality time with my father again the last few days.

Clay Henry can be reached at chenry@nwadg.com .

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