These two works [“Vada” and “West Plains As I Knew It”] were about very different people and required two very different approaches, but the assignments were virtually the same.I was to write the life story of each individual, using all the materials at my disposal, and end with a product that told the story in the individual’s virtual “own words.” In other words, I’d tell the story in the first person, for the most part, and, as near as I could manage it, in their own voice.
In Bob Neathery’s case, I had the advantage of a still very vital and present “Papa Bob,” who told me his numerous stories in a series of audiotapes that together added up to 19 hours of tape. The problem: Bob rambled, and being a broadcaster he had a fear of dead air, so when he finished a story, he’d just keep talking until he thought of another one. But I sorted through it all, gave it a framework, and had the privilege of hearing the lifestory of a boy and his town, straight from the horse’s mouth.
As for Vada, well, she was a force of nature. When I first met her, she was still the fiery, vivacious woman who had stormed her way through 22 years in Arkansas state government, vigorously representing the interests of “her people.” U.S. Senator David Pryor said “We soon learned that when Vada came asking for something, you might as well get it for her, because she’d be back every day until you did.” But by the time we started the book, I could see she was fading fast. Another journalist had prepared a biography of her days in office, but it was pure journalism – all facts and no Vada. So I tried sitting with her and that book, pointing to a page where a story began, and saying, “Do you remember when that happened? What was going on that day?” And she would respond with little anecdotes about her mood, her thoughts at the time, giving me context as well as personality. As time went on, she became more forgetful until, when it came time to select the photos to go with the text, she no longer remembered many of the faces in the pictures. One set of photos she always knew, though – those of her grandchildren, her beloved Adam and Stacie, and her old pal and sometimes nemesis, then Arkansas Governor William Jefferson Clinton. Once, when telling a story where he got the best of her, she called him “Billy.” What a gift, to have known this great lady, and helped other people become acquainted with her great spirit.
Both books took several years to complete — Neathery’s because he decided to do a rewrite with a lot more information after the original book was finished. Vada’s because I had heart surgery. Her book was published in 2008 and is available through the Sheid Furniture web site. I’ve been talking to Stacie about how to set up a link to buying just the book, since I don’t really feel up to selling furniture. ;-