Hank’s legacy still fresh in mind
One year ago today, Prairie Grove lost a legend. The town turned out to celebrate the life of Hank French in a wonderful service that’s just as vivid in my mind today as it was then.
Just as I thought then, I still believe the memorial service should have been carried live on the radio by Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly. It would have provided perspective for everyone who had listened to Hammerin’ Hank for the last 20 years.
I went to the service to pay my respects to Hank, one of the great legends of Arkansas sports talk radio. Dubbed Hammerin’ Hank by Chuck Barrett in the early days of his Sports Wrap show, French was well known in Prairie Grove.
I loved Hank. He brought me great joy. I looked forward to his calls on my days at the station with Barrett and Mattingly.
It was a moving service, uplifting and a great tribute to an Arkansas great, a favorite son of Prairie Grove.
A special needs adult with a love for all things sports, Hank was commonly seen walking Arkansas 62 looking for a ride. He didn’t walk the shoulders of the highway. He stood on the center line, often wearing a tall Dr. Seuss hat. Everyone was glad to pick him up.
One year after his passing, I’m still reminded by many about the void Hank left on our radio show with Mattingly, and he hears it, too. Every now and then, we still play some Hank calls. They are priceless and ageless.
I still hear from some who used to look forward to running across Hank hiking along in Prairie Grove, usually looking for a ride. Chances were big those folks would then learn of the latest sports news. It could be on the Arkansas Razorbacks or the Prairie Grove Tigers, or from pro sports. Hank learned it all during his 65 years.
The service at Prairie Grove First United Methodist Church was fantastic. There was laughter throughout. Pastor Lee Mayne set the tone early when he called Hank “pure radio gold.” Indeed, Hank was that for both Barrett and then over the last decade for Mattingly. Both loved to hear from Hammerin’ Hank on their daily radio shows.
Last summer, Mattingly learned of Hank’s passing via Twitter. Immediately, a tribute to Hank was prepared for that afternoon’s show. Statewide, listeners were treated to one of the classic Hank calls, when he crawled under his bed because of storm warnings. A “cautious” Hank still was prepared with three thoughts for the day. That call was played to end Hank’s service.
That’s what Natalie Bartholemew described at the service as typical Hank. The phone messages from her uncle sometimes were so detailed and lengthy that they came in three parts. He might be calling to announce the NFL Draft with Darren McFadden going to the Oakland Raiders. Or, he might encourage her to head to the library to check out a book on “suckling” after the birth of her child. And, he almost always called when there was a storm warning.
I was in the studio for many of Hank’s calls to Barrett and Mattingly. I was there the day Hank called to check to see if we had watched the new Space Jam movie featuring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny. That was vintage Hank, too.
“I remember the very first call,” Barrett said. “I didn’t know how to take Hank at first. He did want to know if we’d seen Michael Jordan in that movie.
“But as time wore on, I came to understand how genuine Hank was and his pure love of sports. He was well read, prepared and generally had three points.
“You talk to a lot of unique people when you are doing sports talk. But Hank was the most unique. I lost a friend.”
Dudley Dawson, my colleague at Hawgs Illustrated, also was there for many of Hank’s calls.
“Just the most genuine person you could ever imagine,” Dawson said. “And he was loyal to his sports teams. He was a great fan.”
Hank was a daily caller to Barrett’s show.
“It was a great part of the show,” Barrett said. “He made people smile when they were driving down the road by themselves. Good radio is when it’s fun even when you are by yourself. I know he’s missed by most everyone.”
He recalls the times when it might not be the perfect time for a Hank call.
“We might be touching on a subject that was a specific matter that needed lengthy coverage,” Barrett said. “So I
might not go straight to Hank. He hung on. Waited patiently. He was always there when we went to him and he delivered.
“As the show developed, so did the unique character that was Hank. He was a special part of our show.”
Mattingly was honored that the clip was played at the service. There is little doubt that Mayne was right about Hank’s worth to radio.
“Hank was pure gold,” Mattingly said. “Hank stood out. He played along. He got into it and was fun.”
It wasn’t right away that Hank called Mattingly after he took the host spot from Barrett, who was unable to do sports talk after becoming the play-by-play radio announcer for Arkansas football in 2007.
“Obviously, Hank called Barrett more,” Mattingly said. “I remember the first time Hank called our show, everyone in the room let me know that Hank was awesome. Then we started hearing from him on a regular basis and I looked forward to it.
“So many times you are tired of the same old stuff. Every time with Hank, it was fresh and interesting. It provided an uptick for the show and we all knew it.
“You knew it was a big moment in his day, too. And, it was a big moment for us and for the listeners. It made it worth listening.”
No doubt, Hank knew his stuff. He was up on stats. He could quote all things about the Razorbacks.
“He brought passion to our show,” Mattingly said. “His love for the Razorbacks came through. He brought something to the show that no one else could.”
Mattingly thinks the love of Hank by statewide listeners might be similar to what the state of Alabama felt for the son of former Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings years ago.
“Gene would talk about his son often and at the beginning some didn’t know what to do,” Mattingly said. “He had Down Syndrome. It turned out the state of Alabama learned of his special gifts. We learned of Hank’s special gifts and it was genuine radio.
“As we went along, Hank carved out his own niche. He proved that we cannot put limits on someone. It was all pretty cool.”
Hank’s love of the Razorbacks was well represented at the service. A Hog Hat was near his casket. And the video slide show at the end was full of pictures of Hank in Razorback gear. Hank was generally dressed to the nines on holidays, but there were usually mardis gras beads holding a Razorback pendent.
It was said that it’s a good thing Hank never made it on to the TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He watched faithfully, nailing question after question. I learned a lot about Hank at his service.
It’s clear that he knew far more than most in the room. He came to life to me, as Prairie Grove knew Hank French. I know he’s now in a most special place in Heaven, but I’m going to tell myself every time there is a storm warning that he’s under his bed and may call soon.
It’s the best way to remember Hammerin’ Hank. It’s been one year since his passing, but I don’t think anyone has forgotten Hank French.