(Note to my readers: At year’s end, I looked back over what soon will be 17 years of producing nearly 2,500 columns to the very first one published in this space during April 2001. I thought I’d share that timeless story today for all the readers who’ve arrived since that time. Incidentally, the house is now crumbled and gone.)
The abandoned house with its rusting metal roof stands barely 10 yards from the blacktop along U.S. 65, and well within sight of the distant Ozark foothills.
I’ve driven for years past similar homes decaying beside Arkansas highways. They are collapsing testaments to the generations who came and went inside them.
This time I impulsively left the four-lane to lose a few minutes of the afternoon in quiet exploration. The front door stood invitingly ajar. The cracked wooden strippings that floored all five rooms creaked beneath each step.
Scores of dirt dauber families had claimed the walls to construct a village. Their mud homes now stood hollow. Dust coated everything in the rooms.
I stepped off the home’s dimensions at 24 by 26 feet. It was a tiny house by today’s standards. Yet I also felt the families who had resided here over the years had managed to live their lives just fine.
Although every artifact and remnant had been removed, shreds of history still lay partially exposed after decades in the dark. Beneath the wallpaper were pasted layers of deeply yellowed Arkansas Gazette newspapers used as crude insulation. There to read in what light spilled dimly through a small window were the names of Ben E. Hill of Arkadelphia and Harvey R. Smith of Little Rock. Their activities once made news in Arkansas.
Boxers Frank Metheny and Tommy Young of Blytheville also were visible, alongside the names of Rev. O.W. Yates of Arkadelphia and Rev. Calvin B. Waller of Little Rock’s Second Baptist Church.
Finally, I found the date: Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1940. It appeared above an account of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech given the previous night in Madison Square Garden. Someone had pressed these newspapers bearing hundreds of names into their walls six years before I was born and more than a year before the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. Now after six decades, this lonesome house had revealed them to a curious traveler.
During the next week, the names in the wall remained on my mind until I decided to learn whatever I could about at least one of these people. I picked up a telephone and began to dial.
I eventually learned that Waller, who had ministered the Second Baptist Church in Little Rock between 1918 and 1944, was a heavy-set man with a devoted wife and three daughters. Those who remembered him—all now late into life—said he personified gentle kindness and dignity during his 26 years of heading that church. They agreed that he had made a positive difference in thousands of lives.
“Reverend Waller was my favorite pastor,” said Lynn Hefler of Little Rock. “He baptized me and my best friend Kathryn Stair at the same time. And he married my late husband, Jay, and me in June of 1940. A year later, he also baptized Jay. Reverend Waller visited in our home, and I remember seeing him often in the grocery store. He was always friendly. What a nice and compassionate man.”
Peggy Buice, also of Little Rock, said she recalled Waller taking her aside after one service immediately after she had joined the congregation.
“He told me, ‘Now that this is your church, Peggy, tell me what you plan to do with it.’ His message has stayed with me all these years. When I told him that day how I loved a choir, he escorted me right to the choir master and made certain I joined that group.
“As it turned out, I soon met my husband Bob in that choir, and Reverend Waller married us. You might even recall him, Bob Buice … . Bob was an announcer on KARK radio, which later became KARN. He did that for 50 years.”
Years earlier, Waller also had married Peggy Buice’s parents in his home. Their connections with this minister obviously ran long and deep.
I can’t really explain what led me to the names of people long buried. I can, however, describe the primary message I took away from that unscheduled stop: that our actions today, as well as what we leave behind from this lifetime, matter across time.
They can matter greatly even if all that remains of us 60 years from now is our name on brittle, yellowed newsprint inside the wall of some house we’ll never visit occupied by generations we’ll never meet.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.