REX NELSON: A small-town giant

Posted: April 19, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Arkansas lost one of its most important civic leaders last month when David Solomon died in Helena at age 100. He was among the last of the Delta Jews.

The first Jews arrived in the booming Mississippi River town of Helena in the 1840s. A Torah was borrowed from a congregation at Cincinnati in 1846 to use for the high holidays. In 1867, 65 people formed Congregation Beth El. Now, 150 years later, the era of Jews living and thriving in the lower Mississippi River Delta nears its conclusion.

Solomon's grandfather arrived from Germany shortly before the Civil War and had eight children--six boys and two girls. Members of the second generation would later own farms, a wholesale dry goods operation, a department store and a shoe store.

Solomon began the first grade at a Catholic school known as Sacred Heart, which was operated by the Sisters of Nazareth. The nuns quickly advanced him from the first grade to the fourth grade due to his intelligence. He liked to joke that his mother finally pulled him out of the Catholic school when he kept coming home with crucifixes and tiny vials of holy water. Solomon received his bachelor's degree from Washington University at St. Louis and his law degree from Harvard. He applied to be a tax lawyer at a large firm in Memphis. When he wasn't chosen, he came home to Helena to practice law. His wife, Miriam, was the daughter of Charles Rayman, who operated Helena Wholesale Co. The couple had been married 69 years at the time of Miriam's death in 2011.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Delta was perhaps the greatest American melting pot outside a major city. There are few towns in Arkansas with as colorful a past as Helena. A historic marker was even placed there by the Mississippi Blues Commission to commemorate its important place in the history of the blues.

The Arkansas Delta is like many parts of rural America, a place that in some ways never made the transition from the agricultural to the industrial age, much less the technological era. Sharecroppers moved from the cotton fields of the South to the steel mills and automobile factories of the Upper Midwest. They deserted towns such as Helena for the promise of better jobs in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit. With the loss of thousands of sharecroppers across the region came a loss of business for Jewish merchants and professionals. It's common during the holidays each December to see visitors in rural east Arkansas whose automobiles sport license plates from Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. They're the children and grandchildren of those who left the Delta when their services no longer were needed due to the mechanization of agriculture.

David Solomon witnessed that Delta history firsthand. When Temple Beth El closed in 2006 with fewer than 20 members remaining, he and Miriam began hosting Friday night services at their home. In December 2009, Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about those services in which Ben Harris wrote: "The plight of Helena's Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood." Harris went on to write that Miriam and David Solomon's "benign resignation" over the impending end of Jewish life in Phillips County derived "at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery's upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use."

David Solomon's death marked more than the loss of a legendary lawyer. We live in an increasingly urbanized state in which the majority of counties are losing population. The small-town lawyers who are leaders in their communities--often serving in the Arkansas Legislature or on prominent state boards (Solomon, for instance, served on the Arkansas Highway Commission)--are becoming harder to find.

I think back to 1985 when I was living in my hometown of Arkadelphia and received a call from H.W. "Bill" McMillan, who had practiced law there for decades and was among the top civic leaders in south Arkansas. He told me that he didn't expect to live long, handed me a file and asked me to write his obituary in advance. I still consider his request to be one of the premier honors of my writing career. That's because McMillan was a giant in my community. Four generations of McMillans practiced law in Arkadelphia, beginning with Bill McMillan's grandfather, Henry, who started practicing before the Civil War and died in 1910 at age 80.

Like Bill McMillan in Arkadelphia, David Solomon was a giant in Helena. He practiced law from his office on Cherry Street until 2015. He was honored by the Arkansas Bar Foundation for 75 years of active practice.

When I speak to civic clubs in towns across Arkansas, I'm often struck by how much smaller the attendance is than it was two decades ago. At some of these clubs, most members are retired, preferring to talk about the past rather than the future. Where are the Bill McMillans and the David Solomons of the future, the small-town lawyers who will make a difference in their communities and the state? I hope they're out there.

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Freelance columnist Rex Nelson is the director of corporate community relations for Simmons First National Corp. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 04/19/2017