The Round Table
When I read that the cafeteria in the basement of the state Capitol would close for the summer, my first thought was: “What on earth will Don Allen think about this?”
Allen, 86, is a legendary Arkansas lobbyist and was the patriarch of the Round Table, the breakfast spot in the cafeteria where politics, sports, the weather, crop conditions and other subjects were discussed for decades. Allen became a Round Table regular in 1972 when he joined the staff of then-Gov. Dale Bumpers. For years, he could be found in the same seat on weekday mornings, having arrived by 5:20 a.m.
The office of Secretary of State Mark Martin announced in May that sewer-line repairs would require closing the entire Capitol from May 19-21. The work in the cafeteria was far more extensive than in other parts of the building, resulting in its closure for several months. The state terminated its contract with Pam Kirchner, whose family had operated the cafeteria for almost four decades.
When the cafeteria reopens with an updated look and new management, we can only hope that the Round Table is still in place. Certain traditions are important. When Allen began coming to the basement for breakfast, legislators such as Rep. Lloyd Reid George of Danville and
John Miller of Melbourne ruled the roost at the Round Table. Those two legislators are gone now, but there are brass nameplates on the table noting that their seats are “reserved in perpetuity.” The nameplates were purchased by George Jernigan, a former chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party and the Political Animals Club. When someone dies, nameplates are moved from the actual table to the Lazy Susan in the middle.
George, who died in February 2012 at age 85, was a noted raconteur who was born in 1926 in his grandparents’ house at Centerville in Yell County. He grew up at Ola, graduated from Hendrix College at Conway and was a coach and teacher at Fourche Valley, Ola, Morrilton and Gillett. George later borrowed money from his father and grandmother to open a butane gas company at Danville, where he was elected mayor. He first was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1962 and served a total of 28 years. George would celebrate the final day of legislative sessions by wearing overalls, signifying that it was time to head back to the farm in Yell County.
Miller, who died in June 2014, lived in Izard County for 84 of his 85 years. He graduated in 1949 from what’s now Arkansas State University at Jonesboro and worked in his family retail business before spending four years as the county clerk. He later opened an insurance agency, a title abstract business and a real estate firm. Miller was elected to the House in 1958, the start of a 40-year legislative career in which he became recognized as the expert on the state budget.
The third nameplate on the Lazy Susan belongs to former House member William K. “Mac” McGehee of Fort Smith, who was elected to the Legislature in 1996 and was found dead of natural causes in his apartment in the Capitol Hill Building adjacent to the Capitol just before the 1999 legislative session. McGehee was given his “reserved in perpetuity” nameplate because he had the current Lazy Susan made by the Riverside Furniture Co. in Fort Smith and then flew it to Little Rock in his private plane.
“It’s a lot bigger than the old Lazy Susan,” Allen once told me. “George Jernigan gave us the old one, but it was hard to reach.” The Lazy Susan traditionally was covered with bottles of barbecue sauce, hot sauce and pepper sauce, along with jars of honey, sorghum molasses and homemade jellies, jams and preserves that legislators would bring from their districts. The table was constructed by the staff of Secretary of State Bill McCuen, who later was imprisoned for corruption in office. McCuen died of cancer at age 57 in 2000. He put his signature on seemingly everything at the Capitol during his decade as secretary of state and had a soft spot for those who sat at the Round Table. The current table—the smaller version used in earlier years was moved to the other side of the cafeteria—was made out of leftover plywood from a Christmas display.
Ithought the Round Table’s days were numbered when Arkansas voters in November 2014 approved an ethics amendment that would no longer allow lobbyists to buy breakfast for legislators. For years, lobbyists had been putting money in the pot to fund breakfast for legislators. Representatives and senators who were invited to sit at the table went through the line, got what they wanted and had their purchases recorded in a spiral-bound notebook that rested next to the cash register.
“When the ethics amendment passed, we decided to shut down the table,” said longtime lobbyist Ron Harrod. “But you know what? Not a single legislator complained about having to buy breakfast. We found out that it was about the fellowship rather than the food. We’re not allowed to buy them breakfast, although one of them could buy me breakfast.”
There are still two brass nameplates on the actual table. One belongs to Allen, who became the executive director of the politically powerful Arkansas Poultry Federation in 1976 and held the job until 2000 when he retired. He later represented other interests at the Capitol. The other nameplate belongs to Tim Massanelli, who became the House parliamentarian in 1973 and served for 38 years until retiring in 2011.