Moor or Less: Everyone’s from somewhere, even Blytheville

We were about 10 miles from the Missouri state line as we approached Blytheville, Arkansas, where there was an affordable Hampton Inn, a Perkins Restaurant down the street and a quick escape route back onto Interstate 55.

            And me? I had a lower back talking to me, a rumbling tummy and a full bladder.

            So, Blytheville it was for the night while on our journey home from Tucson, Arizona, last week. Missouri …  Illinois … and then “back home again in Indiana” would have to wait another day.

            Blytheville, Arkansas. I had never been there before, never even heard of it. So, after our breakfast-food dinner at Perkins, my wife and I decided to do a little exploring just for the heck of it.

            We found a town that appeared to have seen its better days. Although there were still some stately old municipal buildings, there were too many empty storefronts and no sign of any kind of vibrant downtown.

            Many of the neighborhoods were poor, but to many of the homeowners’ credit, they seemed to be keeping their properties in a prideful manner.

            When I got back to our hotel room, I looked up Blytheville on my computer. I loved the Wikipedia description of the town’s early years: “The lumber industry brought sawmills and a rowdy crowd, and the area was known for its disreputable saloon culture during the 1880s and 1890s.”

            Always tied into agriculture, Blytheville later developed an industry base. It also was the home to Eaker Air Force Base, which was part of the Strategic Air Command.

             But the Air Force left in 1991, and I’m guessing some of the industry followed suit in recent years. So have a lot of people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Blytheville’s population shrank by 5,000 to its current population of about 13,000 over the last 20 years.

            I was ready to dismiss  it as a hapless town, counting for little, until I viewed the list of notable people who were either born or raised in Blytheville. It was an impressive list. Below are some of the those with Blytheville roots:

            — Fred Akers, a coach who narrowly missed two national football championships at the University of Texas and who later coached Purdue. He was a four-sport star at Blytheville High School. He grew up poor and picked cotton on the nearby farms as a teen-ager.

            — Junior Walker, who spent most of his youth in South Bend, was born in Blytheville. He would go on to become the frontman for Junior Walker and the All-Stars. A saxophonist and vocalist, he had several Top 10 hits on the R&B charts, including the No. 1 song, “Shotgun,” in 1965.

            — George Hamilton, the pretty-boy actor who seemed to have a permanent tan, grew up in Blytheville, where his grandfather served as a physician. To his credit, Hamilton has won one Golden Globe award and  been nominated for two more. Yet I remember him most as Count Dracula in “Love at First Bite.”

            — Eric Hill, who was born in Blytheville, played 11 years in the NFL as a linebacker and was a first-round pick out of LSU in 1989. Nine of his seasons were with the Arizona Cardinals and he made at least 90 tackles in each of those seasons.

            — Julie Adams spent eight years of her childhood in Blytheville before becoming a recognizable face in dozens of Hollywood Westerns. I remember her playing opposite Jimmy Stewart in “Bend of the River” and taking an arrow to the shoulder. She later was Sheriff Andy Taylor’s  love interest in “The Andy Griffith Show.”

            — Dee Clark, a native of Blytheville, sang the 1961 hit “Raindrops,” which made it to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. You remember it: “Ah raindrops/ So many raindrops/ It feels like raindrops/ Falling from my eye, eyes/ Falling from my eyes.”

            — M.C. Burton Jr., born in Blytheville, played basketball at the University of Michigan and was the first player in Big Ten history to lead the league in both scoring and rebounding. Instead of playing in the NBA, he became a medical doctor.

            — Kimberly Derrick, also born in Blytheville, won a Winter Olympics bronze medal in 2010 in short track skating. Earlier a national champion in in-line skating, she apparently got her start in the streets of her birthplace.

 Edgar H. Lloyd, who grew up working on his parents’ farm outside of Blytheville, was honored with the Congressional Medal of Honor for single-handedly destroying five enemy machine gun positions in France during World War II. He died in later action just a month shy of V-E Day.

            — Al Feldstein, the longtime editor of Mad Magazine, was stationed in Blytheville air base during World War II and used Blytheville as the setting for his award-winning science fiction short story entitled “Chewed Out.”

            — Michael Utley, a graduate of Blytheville High School, is the musical director and longtime member of Jimmy Buffett’s band. Over the years, he also has backed up such headliners as Aretha Franklin, Jerry Jeff Walker, the Allman Brothers, Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson.

            I’ll stop here, but there are plenty of politicians, a couple of university presidents and other sports and entertainment performers who have called Blytheville home at some point in their lives. I’ll let you look them up if you want.

            I’m sure there are other towns about the same size and with the same circumstances that have similar lists. But I wasn’t in them. I was in Blytheville. I guess I look at this town a little differently after learning of some of its successful former residents.

            I’m now pulling for Blytheville to add to that list of accomplished people over the next few decades.