Digging into Fayetteville
Longtime resident details city in new book.
“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,
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.”
‘I NEED TO BE WRITING’
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.
THE SPRINGDALE NEWS
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.
LIVING IN HISTORY
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.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
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.”
“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.”