By Richard Duke
Courtesy of the Log Cabin Democrat
The brains behind the defining festival in Faulkner County as well as a lifelong journalist who was the managing editor of the Log Cabin Democrat, John Ward passed away recently. He was 81. Ward was an enduring presence in Conway and especially at University of Central Arkansas, where Ward's influence is still felt.
“I worked with and for John Ward three different times over 39 years, and while each time was good, the last time, the years 1988-96 at UCA, was the best because so much was done to advance the university,” said friend, colleague and employee Jim Schneider. "When you were on John’s team you’d go hard, but it was fun and good things would happen. It was fun because he had a great sense of humor and no ego. He took a lot of things seriously -- his family, his work, his saxophone, his dogs, his cornbread -- but not himself. The only part of his life that was close to average was its length. I don’t recall spending a moment with him that wasn’t interesting.”
Schneider and Ward were acquainted through Ward’s brother Bill, and their professional paths crossed several times within UCA and the Log Cabin Democrat.
Ward and his brother Bill helped to create Toad Suck Daze, which has grown throughout the years to become a destination for fun-seekers throughout the state. Today, the festival welcomes hundreds of thousands of people a year and has contributed thousands of scholarships for Faulkner County students.
A one-time high school band director, Ward was married, the father of two children, and a full-time reporter at the Arkansas Democrat while finishing his B.A. degree requirements at night at what was then Little Rock University. A native of Damascus, Ward was a few credits short of a music degree from what was Arkansas State Teachers College - now UCA - when he turned to newspaper reporting.
Ward spent his time "making his own assignments, making his own photos" and going where he wanted. At that time, the editor of the Arkansas Democrat would run whatever he wrote.
During central Arkansas's school integration crisis in the late 1950s, Ward and a Democrat photographer were surrounded by angry segregationists at their rally in Pine Bluff but were able to walk away unharmed when the photographer vowed to record the situation.
Longtime friend former Sen. Stanley Russ of Conway said Ward always remained true to his rural roots whether he was "rubbing shoulders with governors or presidents" - Ward photographed President John Kennedy in Heber Springs and attended White House briefings with President Jimmy Carter - referring to Ward as a true "Renaissance Man."
"Whatever he wanted to accomplish, he did," Russ said. "He wasn't confined to one path in life."
Ward was a professional saxophone player who managed to play in his wife's combo as well as other bands late into his life, and he was also known for being part of the Ward Family Singers. Often they met at the "the farm," owned by Ward and located about eight miles east of Bee Branch. The group had taken items from their parent's home and placed them at "the farm."
Ward served 12 years as managing editor of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway. He also founded the Institute of Politics and Government in Arkansas and served as its chair for several years.
"John walked that tightrope between good journalism and good public relations as well as any person I have ever known in the business," said David McCollum, Log Cabin sports columnist, 30-year veteran of the staff, whom Ward, as managing editor, hired in 1982.
"He was able to do that because of both his keen instincts for news, his wit, his visionary approach to marketing and his love of people and what makes them tick.”
“We became congenial colleagues and discovered we actually liked each other,” recalled Dr. Win Thompson, former UCA President, adding that their first meeting involved a “heated argument over the phone.”
“When I became president of UCA in 1988, I knew his knowledge of Conway would be valuable, and I asked him to join the staff. Over the years, we became very close friends,” Thompson said. “ I will always treasure the meals that a group of us enjoyed periodically with him and Betty at his farm as well as the rump sessions a smaller group of us had regularly at country cafes all over central Arkansas--the casual conversations, the laughter, the serious discussions about politics, religion, everything. He was a very talented person, a wonderful friend, and an incredibly decent human being.”
Ward was a member of the board of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and served as chair for four years. He became director of information services for the University of Arkansas System until 1988 when he was named vice president for public affairs at the University of Central Arkansas.
During his eight years as communications director at UCA, Ward taught journalism and served as president of the UCA Foundation.
Carolyn Ishee, a current member of the UCA Foundation board, said she will miss his wit, wisdom and insight.
“Mr. Ward, as I always referred to him as, even as an adult, was my mentor,” she said. “He taught me the basics of journalism and the benefit of questioning everything as my editor at the ‘old’ Log Cabin Democrat.”
Ishee worked with Ward as alumni director and then development officer, but she is grateful for his vision for the UCA Foundation.
“He elevated the UCA Foundation by increasing the assets of the Foundation from less than $1 million in 1988 to over $6 million when he left UCA in 1996,” she said. “I serve proudly as a member of the John and Betty Ward Scholarship selection committee because I know how much Mr. Ward wanted to help promising journalism students. It is one of the funds I am proud to support. I am honored to serve as a current member of the Foundation board and am pleased that he knew of the appointment before he left us.
He eventually joined the administrative staff of the University of Arkansas System, where he remained until January 2005, when he was named director of marketing and public relations for the Winthrop Rockefeller Center, now Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, on Petit Jean Mountain. He also served as a director of the Oxford American, a literary magazine published at the University of Central Arkansas.
His honors include the American Cancer Society's Special Citation for a series of articles he wrote about laryngectomees, the "Chairman's Award for Outstanding Service" from the Institute of Politics and Government, "Man Of the Year 1981" from the Arkansas Press Association, the "Distinguished Service Award" from the Arkansas Press Association in 1982, and the "Distinguished Service Award" from UALR in 1983.
He was a charter member and former president of the of the Arkansas chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, Society of Professional Journalists.
"There are so many stories about John that I could tell," Russ said. "But they would fill a book."
Lori Kamerling, Fred Petrucelli and David McCollum contributed to this report