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GREG HARTON: News films show state's historic past

by Greg Harton | March 6, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

I'd have much rather headed down to the Fayetteville square last Wednesday evening for the program at the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History.

But, you know, covid-19.

Having been to past lectures put on by this terrific University of Arkansas institution, I can attest that social distancing would have been difficult. The events are well attended and never dull. The fact the center is housed right there on the square, in the former Bank of America building, makes a visit for an evening event all the more special.

Last week, breaking free from my ever-shrinking home office wasn't an option, but the Pryor Center's topic of the day made even more time on Zoom seem attractive.

More than a decade ago now, the Pryor Center came into possession of a treasure trove of Arkansas history. KATV Channel 7 in Little Rock has been documenting, through its film and later video, the news of the state since the station debuted in 1953. In 2009, the Little Rock-based TV station donated more than 26,000 hours of news footage to the Pryor Center. A gift from Tyson Foods, the Tyson Family Foundation and Barbara Tyson provided the funding needed to digitize and preserve the collection.

It's like rubbing a genie's lamp and watching the faces, voices and events of Arkansas' colorful past waft out. For those who appreciate the state's past, it's pure entertainment.

Last Wednesday's event made for perhaps the most interesting Zoom meeting I've been in (no offense meant, co-workers). Kyle Kellams, longtime news director at KUAF Public Radio in Fayetteville, and the Pryor Center's Randy Dixon spent a little more than an hour offering just a handful of highlights from the KATV collection.

There was Johnny Cash, speaking at the downtown Hilton Hotel in Fayetteville (now the Graduate), about his struggles with addiction and singing a song about why he wore black all the time. And telling of a Georgia sheriff whose strong words changed Cash's life forever.

There was the 1975 video of the Rolling Stones' Ron Wood and Keith Richards being released by police in Fordyce after the pair decided to drive between Memphis and Dallas appearances because they'd never seen Arkansas. They were taken into custody by Fordyce police on a reckless driving mishap during which an illegal drug was also confiscated.

In a different category, there was a man of a somewhat different stature, but unequaled in Arkansas or Washington. It was Wilbur D. Mills, who represented central Arkansas in Congress from 1939 to 1977 and who was among the most powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill in the 1960s and early 1970s. The KATV video shows a massive celebration of Mills -- the namesake of my high school -- filling T.H. Barton Colosseum in Little Rock in the early '70s as Mills flirted with a run for the presidency.

And there was Grammy-winning folk singer Jimmy Driftwood performing "Down in the Arkansas" to a herd of his cows in Stone County.

Kellams and Dixon also showed footage from the 1980 nuclear missile silo explosion in Damascus, an incident that, had the nuclear warhead been detonated, would have destroyed a huge swath of Arkansas.

Last Wednesday's presentation and discussion can be streamed from https://fb.watch/40YrfaN0e3. But the public can directly access the KATV collection through pryorcenter.uark.edu.

Arkansas history is fascinating, but the kind of real-time coverage afforded by the KATV collection is a gift to the people of the state. With 26,000 hours of video, I can't wait to see what else is out there.


Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.

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