The Tourism Department’s new king of the mountain

by Rex Nelson (rex.nelson@simmonsfirst.com) 213 views 

It has been 30 years, but I vividly remember that interview in 1986. The student from the University of Missouri was an Arkansas native and had a knack for the written word. He was back in Little Rock during his spring break, and he needed a job with a May graduation looming.

The newspaper business was still robust, and we had plenty of applicants in those days at the Arkansas Democrat, where I served as the 26-year-old assistant sports editor. This particular writer’s stories stood out. He clearly had a future in the newspaper business, and I recommended that he be hired. He came on board late that summer, but I didn’t get to work with him. The newspaper’s mercurial managing editor, John Robert Starr, informed me that I would be headed to the East Coast to serve as the Washington correspondent. I spent the next four years living on Capitol Hill, finally returning to Arkansas for good with a wife I had met in the nation’s capital.

The new sportswriter was named Kane Webb, and he flourished at the Democrat. When I was editor of Arkansas Business, I wound up hiring him away from the Arkansas Gazette as the end neared for that newspaper in 1991. Webb’s long-form writing skills were a major reason that Arkansas Business was named in 1992 as the best business publication in any market of 1 million or fewer people by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers.

Last October, a lot of Arkansans were surprised when Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that a former journalist would replace the beloved Richard Davies as executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. Davies was retiring after having worked for the department for 42 years, serving under eight governors. Few people lasted longer in state government than Davies. And few people in state government were more popular. Now, the avuncular Davies was being replaced by former sportswriter Kane Webb.

‘OUTSTANDING COMMUNICATOR’
“I’ve known Kane for almost 20 years, and I’ve gotten to know him especially well since he joined our team,” Hutchinson explained. “He has a deep and abiding passion for Arkansas. He has written about more people, places and events in this state than I can count, and he understands how important parks and tourism are to Arkansans. … He’s an outstanding communicator, and I’m grateful for the work he has done as one of my senior advisers.”

Like Webb, Davies was a journalism major in college. He graduated from the University of Arkansas, served in the U.S. Army and was looking for work. Bill Henderson, who headed the department at the time, also had been a journalism major. Henderson hired Davies as a writer.

“That was in the days when Gov. Dale Bumpers had put a lot of money into state parks in places like DeGray and Toltec and the Ozark Folk Center, and those places were just coming online,” Davies said. “So I was writing about what the department was doing, and it became more and more administrative and less and less writing. I ended up over at the state parks division for 14 years and back here for another 25.”

The first state park was established atop Petit Jean Mountain in 1923 after the Legislature authorized the commissioner of state lands to accept land donations for parks. In 1927, the Legislature established a seven-member State Parks Commission that had the power to acquire tax-delinquent lands for parks. That’s what happened in the case of the state’s second state park atop Mount Nebo.

Later legislative changes would occur – a revised Arkansas State Park Commission was established in 1937, the State Forestry and Parks Commission was launched in 1953, the State Publicity and Parks Commission was created in 1955 and the current state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission was formed in 1969. The current state Department of Parks and Tourism was created in 1971 during Bumpers’ first year in office.

A LOVE OF READING
Earlier this year, Webb and I met for a burger at a place where we’ve shared stories many times through the years, the venerable Town Pump in the Riverdale area of Little Rock. I had never asked him why he initially wanted to be a sportswriter. This time, I did.

“Like every other boy who liked the Razorbacks back in those days, I grew up reading Orville Henry in the Gazette,” he said. “I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

He recalls grabbing the Gazette at the family breakfast table in 1976 on the morning when Henry broke the story that Frank Broyles would be retiring as head football coach at the University of Arkansas and devoting all of his time to his job as athletic director.

Webb was born at Hot Springs, where his dad taught English, but he spent most of his formative years in Sherwood. He attended Catholic schools – Good Counsel in Little Rock in the first grade, Immaculate Conception in North Little Rock from the second through the eighth grades and Catholic High School in Little Rock from the ninth grade through graduation.

He inherited a love of sports from his father, who would run over to Oaklawn Park during his lunch breaks back in the Hot Springs days and place bets for fellow teachers. Floyd Webb also loved baseball. He had been a talented knuckleballer for the famed American Legion team known as the Little Rock Doughboys. The team, which played at Lamar Porter Field and was sponsored by the M.M. Eberts Post of the American Legion, existed from the late 1920s until the 1950s. It was the national American Legion runner-up in 1947, losing to a team from Cincinnati. Floyd Webb came along a few years prior to a Doughboy named Brooks Robinson, who would go on to become a legendary player for the Baltimore Orioles.

Floyd Webb decided he could make more money for his family selling college textbooks. The family lived for a time in Tennessee at Nashville and Memphis before settling in Central Arkansas. Kane Webb lived for one year on Little Rock’s Fair Park Boulevard before the family built a home in Sherwood. In addition to a love of sports, Floyd Webb instilled a love of reading in his son. The teachers at Catholic High also helped inspire him to read and write. Each afternoon after school when there wasn’t a sports practice, Kane Webb could be found at a place called Publisher’s Bookstore, walking the aisles and looking for new books to purchase.

“I went to the counselor’s office at Catholic one day and told him I wanted to be a sportswriter,” Webb said. “I asked him where I should go. He said I should go to Missouri. It was that simple. It was the only school to which I applied, and I never set foot on campus until the first day of my freshman year.”

EARLY DAYS
Webb joined the staff of an alternative newspaper on campus as a freshman and began cranking out copy. He said: “I wrote pretty much every day for the next 30 years.”

Webb remembers his first day of work at the Democrat: Aug. 6, 1986. His first out-of-town assignment was an American Legion baseball tournament at Memphis. He got the final score wrong in his story. He figured that might be the end of his newspaper career, but no one said anything. In those days, as the Little Rock newspaper war was heating up and both newspapers had large amounts of space to fill, just getting out the paper each night was the goal.

“Being in the sports department at the Democrat was kind of like being in a fraternity,” Webb said. “We were young, and most of us didn’t have families to worry about. Friday nights during high school football season were spent drinking beer on the parking lot after we got the city edition out. We would rush to the box in the middle of the night to buy a Gazette and then count to see if we had more high school scores. It was a war, and we thrived on that. I can remember once going straight from the parking lot to the airport to fly to a Razorback game. I never went to bed. I realize now how lucky I was to come along when newspaper work was still fun.”

In the fall of 1990, Webb was offered a raise from $20,000 a year to $28,500 to jump to the Gazette. He made the switch.

“I was going to get married, and I needed the money,” Webb said. “In hindsight, it was a stupid decision. It was all about the money. By about May 1991, some of us realized the Gazette wasn’t going to survive.”

Webb moved to Arkansas Business shortly before the Gazette closed in October 1991. He married Fran Jansen of Little Rock the following month.

“Going to Arkansas Business was a key point in my career because it got me out of sports and allowed me to write about other things,” Webb said.

ANOTHER MOVE
We had desks that faced each other, and we didn’t mind working long hours. Those were exciting times, and there seemed to be big stories every week – the Gazette closed, Bill Clinton was running for president, Witt Stephens died, Sam Walton died. During the early summer of 1992, I was contacted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and asked if I would be interested in filling the new position of political editor and coordinating the coverage of Clinton’s presidential campaign. I accepted the job, and Webb succeeded me as editor of Arkansas Business.

In 1994, Webb interviewed with Paul Greenberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Democrat-Gazette. Greenberg hired Webb as his deputy.

“I knew of him, of course, but I had never met him,” Webb said. “It was amazing how much freedom he gave me.”

Webb lived for a short time in Minneapolis, where his wife’s brother resided, and survived what he called “the worst winter of my life.” He also spent a brief time in New Orleans, one of his favorite cities, writing for the Times-Picayune. The vast majority of his career, though, has been in Arkansas. At the Democrat-Gazette, he spent more than a decade writing daily editorials, a weekly column and features for the Sunday Perspective section, which he edited. By 2009, Webb decided that the newspaper business was no longer fun. His father died in May 2009, and Webb said he “lost my ballast.”

Webb did some freelance writing after leaving the newspaper and also accepted an invitation from his friend Steve Straessle to teach journalism, creative writing, American literature, music survey and religion at Catholic High. By 2010, the Democrat-Gazette was calling again, asking Webb to serve as the editorial director of its special publications – Arkansas Life monthly magazine, Sync Weekly and three zoned editions. He set the editorial direction and tone for those publications and supervised a staff of more than two dozen employees. He especially enjoyed the work on Arkansas Life.

“I once had been told that I was a magazine writer trapped in a newspaper writer’s body,” Webb said. “I was just a duck to water when it came to magazines. I loved every part of it – writing, editing, managing the staff. I wanted Arkansas Life to be for Arkansas what Texas Monthly was for Texas.”

When Webb became concerned that he and the Democrat-Gazette management didn’t share the same vision for the magazine, he accepted an invitation to interview for the job of editor of Louisville magazine. Because of his love of thoroughbred racing, Louisville – the home of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby – was to Webb a bit like Mecca is to a Muslin pilgrim. Webb hit it off with the magazine’s owner, Dan Crutcher. He said of Crutcher: “Dan told me he bought the magazine because he wanted to be able to write longer stories. How can you not love that? My mother and sister had moved to Bella Vista after my dad died. I needed a change of scenery. I just needed to get out of Arkansas.”

BACK TO ARKANSAS
Webb transformed the magazine, winning praise from readers and seeing Louisville nominated for national awards. But his father-in-law had died, his mother-in-law was aging and his wife and daughter missed Little Rock. So Webb returned to Arkansas once more in the spring of 2014. He began reworking a novel his father had written under the name of F. Spider Webb in 2005. It’s titled “Pool Halls, Parlors and Pawn Shops” and focuses heavily on thoroughbred racing. Webb also did freelance writing, wrote a column for the website Sporting Life Arkansas, edited a book on the Kentucky Derby and helped out a couple of public relations firms.

The week before Christmas in 2014, Webb received a text from a number he didn’t recognize. It said: “Do you want a job?”

He asked, “Who is this?” It was outgoing Second District Congressman and incoming Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, who informed him that Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson needed a strong writer on staff. Webb, who had covered several governors as a writer, was intrigued. He began work on Jan. 5, 2015. He and Hutchinson hit it off immediately.

“I was kind of the older guy with gray hair on a relatively young staff,” Webb said. “There was the inauguration, and then we went directly into the legislative session. We were working seven days a week, but I didn’t mind. It was pretty heady stuff for an old sportswriter. During the summer, the governor promoted me to senior adviser, and I began working on projects beyond writing for him. One of those projects was to find a replacement for Richard Davies. We looked outside the state and inside the state. I kept going back to something Chuck Magill at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock told me. He said: ‘This is such a peculiar state, and I mean that in a good way. You need someone who knows it well. It would be even better if it were someone who lived somewhere else and then came back to Arkansas.’”

Davies mentioned that Webb himself might be a good fit for the job. Two interviews that Webb had planned with potential directors were called off, and Webb wrote the governor a memo explaining that he had reached a dead end. Hutchinson called him in and said, “You’re going to get the job, and I want to announce it right away.”

Webb said the governor “trusted me and knew how much I love Arkansas. I enjoyed my brief time working in the governor’s office. I didn’t mind the hours or the pressure. I’m crazy enough that I want to do it all.”

OFF TO A GOOD START
Webb shadowed Davies for six weeks until Davies’ retirement took effect at the end of November. Like the reporter he once was, he took copious notes on a daily basis.

“It was kind of Richard’s farewell tour as we went to state parks and tourism attractions across the state,” Webb said. “His generous endorsement of me at every stop went a long way in helping me get off to a good start. My first goal is to do no harm because I didn’t inherit an agency that’s broken. Tourism revenue is at an all-time high in our state. I’ve walked into an excellent situation. I think we have the best system of state parks in the country, but there’s always room for improvement. For instance, we need to attract more outside investors in our private-sector tourism facilities. We need to convince more people to relocate to Arkansas. We need to have more of a national effort to sell Arkansas to groups such as motorcyclists and mountain bikers. Tourism is no longer the toy department of state government. It’s economic development.”

So how does the writer I first interviewed three decades ago sum up the whirlwind of recent months?

“I’m a lucky man,” Webb said. “I love the fact that old sportswriters are able to do things like this. I like it that I’m the third journalism major to head this department. You know, I’ve always been a sportswriter at heart.”

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