Dig­ging into Fayet­teville

Long­time res­i­dent de­tails city in new book.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - LARA JO HIGHTOWER

“Char­lie’s al­ways the go-to per­son for any­thing cre­ative that needs to be done. He’s al­ways strived for in­no­va­tive con­tent and de­sign when edit­ing the var­i­ous publi­ca­tions he’s han­dled over the decades.” — Dave Ed­mark

Char­lie Ali­son knows Fayet­teville. He’s lived here since 1965: He and his fam­ily re­lo­cated here from Mis­souri when he was in the sec­ond grade for his father’s job with the St. Louis-San Fran­cisco Rail­way. He knows Fayet­teville so well he’s just fin­ished a book,

A Brief

His­tory of

Fayet­teville, that de­tails the his­tory of the town since it was es­tab­lished in 1828. But he knows quite a bit about the world out­side of Fayet­teville’s borders, as well. Af­ter he grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Arkansas, he and his bi­cy­cle flew to Van­cou­ver, Canada, and em­barked on a three-month, 3,000-mile bi­cy­cle ride. From Van­cou­ver, he headed south to San Diego, where, Ali­son says, he “took a left and came home.” A friend ac­com­pa­nied him as far as Port­land, Ore., but, from that point for­ward, he was all by him­self.

“I dropped her off at the air­port in Port­land, said, ‘Good­bye,’ and re­al­ized, ‘Oh, God, I’m alone. I don’t know any­body here.’” Ali­son started won­der­ing if maybe the trip had been a ter­ri­ble mis­take. But then.

“I was go­ing up to Crater Lake in south­ern Ore­gon and was de­bat­ing, ‘Do I find the next air­port and fly back, or what do I do?’” re­mem­bers Ali­son. “I was go­ing up this hill and sort of curs­ing ev­ery­thing, and two other bi­cy­cle tourists came up be­hind me and [flew] past me like I was stand­ing still. I was like, ‘Agh! I’m not even good at this!’ And then I got to the top, and the view of Crater Lake was stun­ning. It was just un­be­liev­ably pretty.”

Ali­son stopped to spend the night at a camp­ground, where he was ap­proached by an older man who in­tro­duced him­self as Frank Hayes and in­vited Ali­son to eat fresh-caught trout with him and his wife, Grace.

“He and his wife had gone tour­ing when they had got­ten mar­ried,” Ali­son says. “It was dur­ing

the war, and they were ra­tioning gas, so they biked for their hon­ey­moon. They were both so fun to talk to.

“Af­ter that, I thought, ‘OK. I can keep go­ing.’ And I made an ef­fort af­ter that to stay in more camp­grounds — be­fore that,

I had just been camp­ing where I could find woods.”

Ali­son’s long trek was, he says, rel­a­tively un­event­ful, given the fact that he was trav­el­ing with­out the mod­ern day con­ve­niences like GPS or a cell­phone. About once a week, he would track down a pay phone and call his mother col­lect to let her know he was still alive.

There were oc­ca­sional speed bumps.

“I rode through the heav­i­est Septem­ber snow­fall the Sier­ras had ever had up to that point,” he says. “Luck­ily, I had stopped at the ho­tel on the route. The next morn­ing, I woke up, and there was a foot of snow. I went to the clerk and said, ‘I think I need a room for an­other night.’”

And when head­ing to­ward Prescott, Ariz., he had his first me­chan­i­cal dif­fi­culty when his back wheel crum­pled un­der the weight of sev­eral six packs of a cer­tain highly-caf­feinated bev­er­age stashed in his pan­niers.

“It was a whole lot harder to find wa­ter at that time — there weren’t con­ve­nience stores on ev­ery cor­ner. You didn’t have bot­tled wa­ter ev­ery­where. So the next log­i­cal thing in my brain was, ‘Hey, buy a six pack of Moun­tain Dew.’”

An­other ob­ser­va­tion from his trip?

“Texas is a whole lot wider than you think.”


Ali­son says re-en­try into the real world af­ter his ex­tended ad­ven­ture was dif­fi­cult.

“When I got back, I felt de­pressed for a pe­riod,” he says. “A lot of bi­cy­cle tourists say the same thing. You’ve got a sense of mis­sion ev­ery day. You go from point A to point B, you need to find food and take care of this and that — and sud­denly, you fin­ish the tour, and you’re left with noth­ing to re­ally do. You quit liv­ing in the mo­ment.”

Hav­ing fin­ished col­lege three months be­fore with a jour­nal­ism de­gree but with­out a con­crete idea of where he was headed next wasn’t help­ing. Although, Ali­son says, three months alone on the road had helped him fig­ure a few things out.

“When you’re bi­cy­cling ev­ery day, some­times 60, 70 miles, you sort of start liv­ing in­side your own head,” he says. “You think a lot. Pretty soon you be­gin to get clear an­swers to things you never thought about ask­ing. And part of that process was, ‘Yeah, I need to be writ­ing.’”

Ali­son had first started writ­ing when he joined the stu­dent news­pa­per in ju­nior high school.

“I had no­ticed that there were a whole bunch of cute girls work­ing there and thought, ‘Oh, I should try that,’” says Ali­son, laugh­ing. “Truly, it was lucky, be­cause I had bombed out of band, and I think I had tried out for choir and was prob­a­bly one of maybe two peo­ple who didn’t get to be in choir. That is how bad I must have sung.”

He had also “bombed out of” eighth-grade foot­ball, in an in­ci­dent that demon­strated that his crit­i­cal think­ing skills were ad­vanced for an eighth-grader.

Dur­ing try­out week, the foot­ball coaches were test­ing the lim­its of the stu­dents’ en­durance by run­ning them ragged in the

Arkansas Au­gust heat.

“They had us all lined up, and we were all dead tired, and the coach asked if any­one wants wa­ter, please step for­ward,” says

Ali­son. “I knew this was a trick. ‘This is a trap! I’m not step­ping for­ward!’ And there were about three or four kids who did step for­ward. One was a re­ally close friend, some­one I had known since we moved here, and a lit­tle bit heftier than most kids. I knew he was dy­ing, and, in my mind,

I wasn’t be­ing hy­per­bolic, I knew he needed wa­ter. And the coach said, ‘OK, you four kids, take an­other lap,’ and I thought, ‘I don’t need to do this. This is a sort of bizarre way to live life,’ and so I, along with a whole bunch of other kids, turned in my shoul­der pads and hel­met.”

The de­ci­sion was kis­met:

He dis­cov­ered that he loved work­ing on the news­pa­per.

Not just writ­ing for it, but de­sign­ing and pro­duc­ing it as well.

“I found out I had an ap­ti­tude for it, and I kept do­ing it in high school and col­lege,” he says, where he was edi­tor of the stu­dent news­pa­per The Trav­eler.


By the time he grad­u­ated col­lege, news­pa­pers were in his blood. But he wasn’t sure where to take that pas­sion next. For a while, he took free­lance writ­ing jobs and went to work, briefly, for The North­west Arkansas Times, but he didn’t re­ally feel like he had found a news­pa­per home un­til he started work­ing for The Spring­dale News, a pre­de­ces­sor of this news­pa­per.

“Char­lie came to work for us in 1988 at what was then The Spring­dale News,” says Dave Ed­mark, then city edi­tor for the pa­per. “Jim Mor­riss was edi­tor and soon dis­cov­ered that Char­lie had a wealth of tal­ent that in­cluded writ­ing, re­port­ing, de­sign and a grasp of all the con­cep­tual as­pects of a news­pa­per. When the news­pa­per con­verted to morn­ing pub­li­ca­tion a cou­ple of years later, we knew we needed some­one to hold down the cru­cial and new po­si­tion of night edi­tor that would es­sen­tially co­or­di­nate get­ting the pa­per out on time with all the nec­es­sary in­gre­di­ents in it. Jim knew that Char­lie was the right per­son for that job.” When the pa­per opened a Fayet­teville bu­reau, Ali­son cov­ered Fayet­teville city gov­ern­ment. It could be quite a lively beat. He was on the job for the events sur­round­ing the in­fa­mous Kohl’s tree-sit­ter, Mary Light­heart, the ac­tivist who took up res­i­dence in an an­cient tree slated to be razed dur­ing con­struc­tion of the depart­ment store. “It was one of those things where the events lead­ing up to it were, at that time, sort of typ­i­cal of Fayet­teville,” he says. “Gnash­ing of teeth and wav­ing of hands. When the city coun­cil fi­nally de­cided that, yeah, the project can go for­ward, the next day Mary Light­heart climbs into one of the trees. I had maps of what trees were go­ing to be pre­served and where the build­ings were go­ing to be. I kept look­ing at the tree she was in and at some point I re­al­ized that she was in one of the trees that was go­ing to be saved. So I got to write that story in the morn­ing. in a “The new next tree.” night, she was When Jim Mor­riss re­tired in 2003, Ali­son says he felt like it was a sign that it might be time to move on to other things. He had al­ready started work­ing on a master’s de­gree at the Univer­sity of Arkansas, so he ap­plied for and re­ceived a grad­u­ate as­sist­ant­ship that al­lowed him to fin­ish his pro­gram in a year. When a friend called to ask him if he wanted to ap­ply for the

Univer­sity Re­la­tions job she was re­sign­ing from, it seemed like fate was in­ter­ven­ing once again. To­day, he serves as an ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor within Univer­sity Re­la­tions at the univer­sity.


Earn­ing his master’s de­gree in jour­nal­ism meant at least 50 per­cent of his classes would be in a dif­fer­ent dis­ci­pline, and Ali­son chose his­tory. He says his mother, Martha, had al­ready in­stilled a love of his­tory in him and his sib­lings early on, and the pro­fes­sors in the his­tory depart­ment at the UA re­in­forced that love.

“The cour­ses I took in his­tory were just won­der­ful,” he says. “I had El­liott West, Daniel Suther­land and Jean­nie Whayne. Be­yond their re­search in­ter­ests, all three of them write as though they’re nov­el­ists, piec­ing to­gether manuscripts and diaries and news­pa­per re­ports in a way that makes nonfiction be­come an en­velop­ing read. If, at mo­ments, my writ­ing as­pires to that level, it’s be­cause of read­ing their works and think­ing about how they write.

“I had to write pa­pers for the cour­ses, and I liked the re­search. It was like be­ing a re­porter, track­ing down things.” Ali­son grew so ex­cited about the prospect of writ­ing a book about Fayet­teville’s his­tory that he ap­proached John Lewis — Bank of Fayet­teville founder and pres­i­dent/chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, as well as a noted Fayet­teville his­tory buff — about the pos­si­bil­ity of col­lab­o­rat­ing. Sadly, Lewis died be­fore the idea could come to fruition.

“At that point, I fig­ured that, ‘OK, the book is out of the cards for the mo­ment,’” says Ali­son. “I started tak­ing all of the trivia I had col­lected about Fayet­teville and cre­ated a web­site about Fayet­teville his­tory. It was a blog plat­form, so I could just add some­thing as I came across it. Since I wasn’t ad­ver­tis­ing it, no one ever saw it, so I had time to sort of build out what I wanted.”

Ali­son reached a wider au­di­ence when he be­came an early user of Face­book and cre­ated a Fayet­teville his­tory page that soon gained trac­tion. Ali­son even met his wife, Ali­son, through the page, when she wrote to ask for help re­search­ing the his­toric Fayet­teville build­ing she was work­ing in at the time.

“He is a his­tory buff,” says friend and col­league Steve Voorhies, me­dia re­la­tions man­ager at the UA. “He’s very knowl­edge­able about lo­cal his­tory, but it’s re­ally based on a great love for the town. He may, at heart, be a ro­man­tic. That may be where a lot of his love for the city and the things he cares about comes from. But he’s a re­al­ist, as well.”

When fel­low Wash­ing­ton County His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety board mem­ber Ellen Comp­ton was ap­proached by Ar­ca­dia Pub­lish­ing to au­thor a pic­to­rial his­tory of Fayet­teville for their Im­ages of Amer­ica series, the two agreed to part­ner on the project. Ali­son and Comp­ton would spend a lit­tle over a year hunt­ing down in­ter­est­ing pho­tos and the sto­ries be­hind them from Spe­cial Col­lec­tions at the Univer­sity Li­brary and the Shiloh Mu­seum of Ozark His­tory in Spring­dale.

A few years ago, he was ap­proached by a pub­lisher as­so­ci­ated with Ar­ca­dia to write a Fayet­teville his­tory book.

“I re­ally thought I would aim it for Fayet­teville’s bi­cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tion, which is a decade away. But

I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I’ll just kick my­self be­cause some­one else will.’” So he ac­cepted the chal­lenge of writ­ing the book in the year and a half he was given.

De­spite all that he al­ready knew about Fayet­teville his­tory through his web projects, Ali­son was still sur­prised by some of the sto­ries he learned through his re­search. His book is packed with tan­ta­liz­ing tid­bits that might take even the most learned of Fayet­teville his­to­ri­ans by sur­prise. Take the Univer­sity of Arkansas stu­dent walk-out of 1912.

“A group of about 36 stu­dents, all male, pub­lished an un­der­ground news­pa­per with a list of com­plaints about univer­sity poli­cies, and the univer­sity pres­i­dent and fac­ulty com­mit­tee de­cided to ex­pel the 36 stu­dents,” says Ali­son. “Some of them were from fairly prom­i­nent fam­i­lies in Arkansas, so that’s the start of the bad news for the fac­ulty and the pres­i­dent, be­cause those stu­dents wrote home and said, ‘I’ve been ex­pelled for protest­ing a just cause.’”

Ali­son ex­plains that the stu­dents were ex­pelled un­der a rule that pro­hib­ited the pub­lish­ing of an unau­tho­rized news­pa­per.

“And then all of the other stu­dents — there were around 700 stu­dents at that time — they all went on strike and quit go­ing to classes. There were about two or three that didn’t strike, and I’m pretty sure they were pro­fes­sors’ kids.” Within a week, says Ali­son, the gov­er­nor trav­eled by train from Lit­tle Rock to Fayet­teville to quash the up­ris­ing, which he did by urg­ing the fac­ulty of the univer­sity to change the rule the stu­dents were ex­pelled un­der. The stu­dents re­turned to class. The univer­sity pres­i­dent re­tired a few months later.

The stu­dents’ protest is in­dica­tive of Fayet­teville’s his­tory of pro­gres­sivism, which has marked the city at sev­eral crit­i­cal junc­tures in his­tory. Ali­son points out that, af­ter the Civil War, Fayet­teville was the first town to cre­ate a pub­lic school for African-Amer­i­can stu­dents.

“It was pri­mar­ily be­cause, for the first three years af­ter the Civil War, we had a Re­con­struc­tion gov­ern­ment. We had north­ern­ers

who were mostly in charge, and South­ern­ers who had re­mained sym­pa­thetic to the Union, so they were look­ing to pro­vide equal­ity at that point.” Af­ter Brown v. The Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, says Ali­son, Fayet­teville moved much more quickly than other South­ern towns to in­te­grate the pub­lic school sys­tem.

“The school board voted two days af­ter the [court rul­ing] to go ahead and in­te­grate,” he says.


Though the book is fin­ished, it’s doubt­ful that Ali­son will leave his in­ter­est in Fayet­teville his­tory be­hind him. He con­tin­ues to main­tain the Fayet­teville his­tory Face­book page and web­site that he cre­ated. With the ma­jor project of the book be­hind him, how­ever, he might have time to take an­other bi­cy­cle tour, which he says he’s due for. He’s taken eight tours since his in­au­gu­ral trip.

“Bi­cy­cle tour­ing is a great way to ex­pe­ri­ence other places and peo­ple,” he says. “You travel at a speed that al­lows you to see, smell, touch and take in the coun­try­side and the peo­ple who live there in a deeper way than driv­ing past in a car al­lows you.”

The more Ali­son talks about bi­cy­cling, the more it sounds as if he’s giv­ing out life lessons.

“[In bi­cy­cle tour­ing], a wrong turn is al­most al­ways a good thing,” he says. “You wind up in un­ex­pected ter­ri­tory and have to live with your mis­takes. You fig­ure out that the des­ti­na­tion is ‘Pshaw’; the ride is ev­ery­thing. Pout­ing, curs­ing, re­gret­ting help you not.

“To para­phrase Yvon Chouinard, you’re not hav­ing an ad­ven­ture un­til a bird poops on your head.”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/J.T. WAM­PLER

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/J.T. WAM­PLER

“He was handy to have as an edi­tor be­cause he has an en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of not just Fayet­teville, but the re­gion it­self,” says Laura Kel­lams of Char­lie Ali­son, pho­tographed at the Wash­ing­ton County His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety’s Head­quar­ters house. “And this was be­fore he even be­came a his­to­rian! It was re­as­sur­ing to a young re­porter that he was nearby to catch any dumb mis­takes on my part. He was also eth­i­cal and kind. And he re­mains that way in all he does, from his work life to his friend­ships.”

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