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The Path to the Promise

In El Dorado and Arkadelphia, the dreams of Charles Murphy Jr. and Jane Ross live on. The El Dorado Promise and the Arkadelphia Promise will help make those two cities shining stars for the southern half of our state. Interestingly, the initiatives have their roots in a pair of great Arkansans who both were born in 1920.

In the previous post, I wrote about the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship program, which was unveiled last week.

Though there are differences, the program is based on the El Dorado Promise, which was announced on Jan. 22, 2007.

The El Dorado Promise was made possible by a $50 million gift from Murphy Oil Corp.

The Arkadelphia Promise is being funded by the Ross Foundation and Southern Bancorp.

These two programs will help make El Dorado and Arkadelphia shining stars for the southern half of our state. Interestingly, the initiatives have their roots in a pair of great Arkansans who both were born in 1920.

I’m talking about Charles H. Murphy Jr. of El Dorado and Jane Ross of Arkadelphia. For each of these two south Arkansas business leaders, the family wealth had its roots in the pine forests of the Gulf Coastal Plain. And for each, the betterment of Arkansas was a passion.

Murphy was born in El Dorado on March 6, 1920, to Charles H. Murphy Sr. and Bertie Wilson Murphy. His father had moved to El Dorado in 1904 to operate a bank. It wouldn’t be long before the elder Murphy owned 13 banks. He also built a sawmill at Cargile in Union County and then built a railroad to supply that sawmill with timber.

“Land acquisitions in south Arkansas and north Louisiana led to oil exploration ventures, which provided royalties and operating interests,” John G. Ragsdale writes in a profile of Charles Murphy Jr. in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). “Murphy’s father had him manumitted by court order at the age of 16 so he could legally transact business for himself, and Murphy entered the petroleum industry as an independent operator — not affiliated with some of the major companies already operating in the area — while in his teen years. When his father had a stroke in 1941, Murphy had to take over management of the various businesses.”

Charles Murphy Jr. had attended the Gulf Coast Military Academy, an institution that had been founded in Gulfport, Miss., in 1912 by Col. James Chappel Hardy (the school no longer exists). He also had received extensive tutoring, including French. Murphy was a voracious reader until his death in March 2002 at age 82.

Murphy and his three sisters — Caroline Keller, Bertie Deming and Theodosia Nolan — pooled their business interests in 1946 into C.H. Murphy & Co. The company changed its name to Murphy Corp. in 1950 and to Murphy Oil Corp. in 1964. Charles Murphy Jr. would serve as president until 1972 and as board chairman until 1994.

“Murphy Oil Corp. developed from family timberlands in southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana that were owned by Charles H. Murphy Sr.,” Ragsdale writes. “… When oil was discovered in the Caddo Field north of Shreveport in 1907, Charles Murphy Sr., the owner of timber and banking interests in Union County, decided that his timber company should purchase land on a scattered noncontiguous pattern to provide more exposure to any oil development. When the large Smackover Field in Ouachita and Union counties was discovered in 1922, Murphy had oil royalty interests in it. He and joint operators owned about 100,000 acres in the Union County area.”

Education was important to Charles Murphy Jr. He served 16 years on the state Board of Higher Education and 10 years on the Hendrix College board. In 1980, he established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“Beyond serving on boards and providing funding, he was active as a lecturer on economics, responsible civic actions, energy and education, never charging a fee,” Ragsdale writes.

Though Mr. Murphy was no longer with us by the time the January 2007 announcement of the El Dorado Promise was made, it was very much in his spirit.

The same goes for Arkadelphia’s Jane Ross. Though she is no longer with us, she would have been immensely pleased by what occurred last week.

Ross was born in Arkadelphia on Dec. 23, 1920, to Hugh Thomas Ross and Esther Clark Ross. She graduated from college at Henderson in 1942 and became a photographer for the Navy. Photography was her passion, and her family sent her to the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., to study color photography.

“When Jane Ross returned to Arkadelphia following the war, she opened a studio, Photos by Ross,” Christin Northern writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “She owned and operated this portrait studio from 1948 to 1955. … Although Ross’ first love was photography, she gave it up as an occupation in 1955. The death of her father and family obligations outweighed her love of photography. Jane Ross was heiress to her family’s southwest Arkansas timber fortune. J.G. Clark, Ross’ grandfather, began an empire in the forest products industry in the 1880s. After her father’s death in 1955, Ross operated the large timber enterprise.

“In 1966, Ross established the Ross Foundation, a philanthropic organization, with her mother. The foundation’s financial backing came from Esther Ross’ timber holdings. Ross became the executive director of the Ross Foundation after her mother’s death in 1967, while still operating the timber business. She remained chairman of the board of the Ross Foundation until her death in 1999. However, in 1979, she relinquished some of the control over daily operations of the Ross Foundation to her relative, Ross Whipple.”

Whipple proved to be a shrewd manager of the foundation’s assets. He also turned out to be one of the South’s most innovative bankers. He took over Merchants & Planters Bank of Arkadelphia, which had been founded in 1911, and eventually transformed it into a regional banking company known as Horizon Bancorp. Following the sale of Horizon, Whipple formed Summit Bancorp in February 2000. It now has 20 branches stretching from Little Rock into southern Arkansas.

Whipple also runs a timber management company known as Horizon Timber Services and is the managing general partner of the Whipple Family Limited Partnership. He describes it as “a separate set of lands that are considered to be a charitable asset. We manage these lands like a mini-national forest. Since 1970, we’ve grown from 18,000 acres to about 65,000 acres through acquisition. … I cut my teeth in the woods. Those trees don’t talk back to you. Here in Clark County, the strong history of the forest industry as well as the future growth excites me.”

While Whipple was building his banking empire, another interesting development was taking place down the street from his Arkadelphia office. In 1986, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Mack McLarty, Rob Walton and others joined up with foundations such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to create a community development bank holding company. The goal was to use the proceeds from commercial banks to fund rural development activities rather than paying dividends to stockholders.

Arkadelphia-based Southern Bancorp has now become the largest and most profitable rural development banking organization in the country. The first bank it purchased was Arkadelphia’s Elk Horn Bank & Trust Co. in 1988. Since then, other banks have been purchased across Arkansas and in the Mississippi Delta. Southern Bancorp has grown stronger than ever under the leadership of Phil Baldwin.

A 2005 article in Arkansas Business described it this way: ”Baldwin has brought fiscal discipline to an organization that previously seemed unable to reconcile its two halves, the commercial banking enterprise and the nonprofit organizations it supports.”

“Not only do I believe that you’ve got to stay in the black, but I think you’ve got to be high performing,” Baldwin said at the time.

How fortunate is a town the size of Arkadelphia to have two banking corporations such as Summit and Southern headed by visionaries such as Whipple and Baldwin?

It was fitting that they were front and center at last week’s announcement of the Arkadelphia Promise.

Baldwin said one of the transformational goals of Southern for the communities in which it operates is to reduce high school dropout rates and increase college attendance.

“It sends the message that every child in Arkadelphia willing to work hard and succeed academically can attend college,” he said of the scholarship program.

Meanwhile, Whipple described it as “one of the best economic events that has ever happened to Arkadelphia as well as being a tremendous educational benefit for every graduate of Arkadelphia High School.”

In El Dorado and Arkadelphia, the dreams of Charles Murphy Jr. and Jane Ross live on.

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