Friday, March 15, 2013

TOP STORY >> Mourners pay tribute to Rice

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville community was lined up at the doors of First United Methodist Church Friday afternoon to say final good- byes to Ben Rice, attorney, businessman, philanthropist and publisher.

One doesn’t have to look far to see the landmarks Rice left in Jacksonville.

There’s the military mu-seum, which was a 30-year battle to fruition. The Boys and Girls Club, the senior center, a secure water supply from Greer’s Ferry, the Rotary Club, and when the city gets its own school district it will be in large part to the hard working Rice has done over the past decade.

He also owned and operated the Jacksonville Daily News, operated the first radio station in Jacksonville and was well respected for his skills as an editorial writer.

Rice died Tuesday at the age of 75 after a battle with pneumonia, but remained active in the community he loved until a day before he died.

Rice was at the Jacksonville Rotary Club meeting Monday, which happened to be at North Metro Medical Center. “He was sick and didn’t need to be there, but it was his turn to introduce the guest speaker and he never faltered from his duties,” said longtime friend Joan Zumwalt.

Funeral service will be 2 p.m. Saturday, March 16 at First United Methodist Church, officiated by Rev. Mark McDonald and Rev. Brad Moore. Burial will follow at Concord Cemetery in Furlow.

“He was tenacious in advocating the common good,” said fellow attorney Mike Wilson.

Mayor Gary Fletcher used the same word to describe Rice: “His tenacity set him apart. When he got something in his head, he wouldn’t stop. He was coming to council meetings 20 years ago talking up the military museum. We knew it wouldn’t happen. He did. We were wrong and are glad we were.”

The mayor added retirement and relaxation just weren’t his vocabulary.

“I’ll always picture him with folders under his arm walking fast, doing something for Jacksonville.”

Gene Adams, Rice’s partner at the Rice and Adams law firm on Main Street, tells about Rice’s beginnings as an attorney in 1964.

“That was a year before I was born, so when he gave me advise, I knew he had the experience and I listened,” Adams said.

You couldn’t miss Rice back in those early days, Adams said. “In his seersucker suit on a hot July day he reminded me of Gregory Peck in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ He was the epitome of a Southern gentleman.”

Judge Robert Batton joined forces with Rice in the early 1970’s and the pair remained partners for two decades and friends for a lifetime. “Our partnership was formed on a handshake. Can you imagine two lawyers coming together and no paperwork? His word was his bond,” Batton said.

Batton called Rice a “treassure to his community. He was always upbeat and positive and never had a harsh word for anyone.”

Rice was born in Texarkana but grew up in Jacksonville and graduated from Jacksonville High School in 1955.

“He was a year ahead of me,” developer Tommy Dupree recalled, “and always a good student. All the teachers liked him.”

Rice went on to the Univer-sity of Arkansas and earned an associate degree in journalism.

His law degree came from George Washington University. “That’s one of the top five schools in the country, right up there with Harvard and Princeton,” Adams said.

After getting his degree, Rice had an interview with the legendary Herschel Friday, whose firm went on to become the largest in the state.

“He had the job,” Adams said, “but Herschel asked Ben what he really wanted to do. Ben said he wanted to start his own practice in Jacksonville. Herschel told him to follow his dream and that the door would always be open at the Friday Law Firm for him,” Adams said.

Friday went so far as to give Rice a key to the firm to use its vast law library whenever he needed it. “That’s how much respect Herschel had for him,” Adams said.

He was Jacksonville’s first city attorney, holding the post for a decade, starting in 1967.

Besides being an attorney, Rice was a dreamer, his friends said.

“He had the ability to see old buildings in the city and see a new future for them,” longtime friend Bart Gray said. “He turned the old funeral home into the military museum, the old telephone building on Main into a small shopping center. He bought the struggling Jacksonville Daily News in an effort to keep it alive too,” Gray said.

Rice was instrumental in the founding of the Jack-sonville Boys and Girls Club, the Jacksonville Museum of Military History and Jackson-ville Towers, and remained passionate about them.

To get the military museum opened, Rice pushed the city to start an Advertising and Promotion Commission and initiate the hamburger tax to promote the city. The commission’s first promotion was the museum and it has grown to be one of the best military museums in the region.

Zumwalt, who worked hard with Rice to open the museum, said if it wasn’t for his continued drive, the museum would not be a reality. “Plus he’s responsible for many of the one-of-a-kind collection items we have,” she said.

Zumwalt came to Jacksonville in 1963 to help Rice operate the radio station.

“Can you believe it has been 50 years and we’ve been friends throughout it all. Our families grew up and old together,” she said.

She said the 1,000-watt station, KGMR, operated out of a small red-brick building on Second Street close to the Daily News, which Rice ended up buying.

“We played country, gospel, contemporary and even had a segment called ‘Hits of Yesterday,’ and we did it all locally,” she said.

The director of city administration, Jim Durham, said, “Ben left his imprint on everything in the city, and he didn’t do it for himself. He did it for the love of the community.”

Ted Freeman, a longtime friend, echoed those thoughts. “He was dedicated to Jacksonville. He was a dedicated leader without being a flag waver for himself,” Freeman said.

He said Rice would do anything for projects he was pushing.

“We had a donkey softball game as a civic club fundraiser and it was hilarious watching everyone, including Ben, fall off time and again. But it didn’t faze him any because he turned right around and got on a mechanical bull at a fundraiser for the boys and girls club,” Freeman recalled.

“It looks easy, you know, but Ben didn’t stay on that bull long.” Freeman said it was funny to see this respected lawyer sprawled out on the ground smiling.

Freeman said Rice appreciated the value of Little Rock Air Force Base and worked long and hard on their behalf. “He was always sensitive to the reputation of Jacksonville,” he said.