Tuesday, May 11, 2010

More News From Home

Today, I learned that an old family friend, Bob Meriwether, from my hometown in Arkansas died during the weekend.

Details on his death are a bit sketchy. I have only been able to learn that he died after a "lengthy illness," which could mean just about anything.

He was known by one and all as "Big Bob" — not because he had a son who shared his name, and it was a way to differentiate between the two but because, in the prime of his life, he was a big man, a warm man with a gregarious manner and a resounding voice.

For many years, he was a colleague of my father's, teaching history and political science at Hendrix College, a small Methodist school in Conway, Ark. That's the college in which I enrolled following my graduation from high school, and Big Bob was my adviser and my teacher in the 1½ years I spent there.

But, in many ways, he was my mentor long before I got to college. When I was growing up, I was enthralled by his encyclopedic knowledge of history and political science. His tales served to inspire much of my interest in politics and history, which many of you have no doubt noticed in this blog, and the fact that I began my collegiate career as a political science major was, in large part, a result of his influence.

In hindsight, I guess he knew so much about Arkansas history because he lived a lot of it.

He served on the Quorum Court in my home county for seven years. He was the director of the Arkansas Governor's School for the Gifted and Talented. He was a member of the Arkansas Constitutional Revision Study Commission and served as chair of the Declaration of Rights Committee. He was appointed by two Arkansas governors to serve as a delegate to the Education Commission of the States. He was very active in civic affairs and recognized frequently for his work.

When I was a child, a devastating tornado came through my hometown. Big Bob and his family were sitting down to dinner, and, apparently, they had their radio on (there was no siren system in those days) and heard that the tornado was coming. They dove under their beds minutes before the tornado hit their house. After the storm had passed and they emerged from under their beds, the dining room where they had been sitting was gone.

In fact, the storm left everything in shambles. With his characteristic wit, Big Bob quipped, "There goes 'Yard of the Month.' "

He had perhaps the most complete life of anyone I ever knew. He made a small appearance in a movie that starred Burt Reynolds and was filmed in Arkansas in the early 1970s. Ned Beatty was one of his co–stars. So were Diane Ladd and Laura Dern (it was her screen debut).

Big Bob got the part because he so closely resembled a male relative the director had wanted to use because he looked so much like a classic Southern character, but, for whatever reason, the relative wasn't able to do it. So Big Bob was called on to fill in.

I can only imagine how he must have regaled his castmates with his tales of Arkansas lore. I don't think anyone walked away from the conversations unsatisfied.

Of Big Bob, I think I could truly say that he had an appetite for everything — good food, good companionship, good conversation. All were welcome at his table, whether they shared his opinions or not.

One of my favorite stories about him was about a night when he and his wife had dinner with my parents and a few other couples at a Mexican restaurant in Little Rock. The restaurant — which, I believe, is no longer in operation — was an all–you–can–eat place — which was a risky offer for any eatery to make to someone like Big Bob.

When you wanted more of anything, you simply raised a little flag on your table and a waiter would come, ask what you wanted and take your plate to the kitchen to get it. On this occasion, I believe that everyone in the group had agreed they were going to get their money's worth, and each got a second full meal; after consuming the second Mexican dinner, everyone was stuffed and just sat silently around their table.

Finally, Big Bob broke the silence. "The thing is," he intoned in his Arkansas drawl, "I could eat a third."

And I'll bet he could have, too.

Rest in peace, Big Bob.

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