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Miller Williams and Willard Gatewood devised a plan back in 1980. They believed that the University of Arkansas required an additional outlet for scholars who wanted to publish their work. They believed that Arkansas had a shortage of publishing opportunities, as well as a lack of attention to its history and culture.

The University of Arkansas Press was established in the McIlroy House, Fayetteville’s renovated residence, on December 20, 1980.

Brent Riffel wrote “A stylized representation of this house became UA Press logo,” for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The press was initially without the resources and staff to produce its own work. Williams arranged with William King, the head of University of Missouri Press. Missouri would be the editing and production house.

The UA Press did not begin functioning independently until 1983. The first title was “The Governors of Arkansas: Essays in Political Biography”, published by Timothy Donovan, a UA historian.

As I peruse the 40-page 2022 catalogue, I find many books that I would like to purchase for myself, and others I would love to get as Christmas gifts. The quality and variety of the books are amazing. It’s hard to believe that this press has had such a turbulent history. It truly has been “the little university press that could.”

McIlroy House was set on fire in November 1983. The staff had to leave for nearly a year. The September 1987 fire in McIlroy House that destroyed many books and damaged a warehouse was also a factor. John White, UA Chancellor was able to close the publishing house down in the late 90s.

It’s also the story about some of the most gifted people to ever live in this area.

Arkansas and their determination for UA Press to succeed. Williams and Gatewood rise at the top.

Williams, one the most important American poets of the 20th Century, was 33 years a UA professor in English, foreign languages, and comparative literature. Fayetteville hosted a creative writing program that attracted writers from across the nation. Williams was an author, editor and translator of over 30 volumes of poetry, fiction, literary criticism, and literary criticism.

Williams was born April 30, 1930 at Hoxie. He was the son of a Methodist minister and moved around a lot as a boy. He graduated from Fort Smith high school in 1947. He entered Hendrix College, Conway, as a freshman. He then transferred across the city to what is now the University of Central Arkansas. He was then transferred again to Arkansas State University, Jonesboro. In 1952, Williams published “Et Cetera,” his first collection de poems.

He received a bachelor’s degree as a biology major at Jonesboro University in 1951. Two years later, he obtained a master’s degree in zoology from the University of Arizona. For the next ten years, he taught biology. Williams was a teacher at Millsaps College Jackson, Miss. He also briefly attended the University of Mississippi’s medical school.

Gatewood wrote that he obtained a job at Louisiana State University’s English Department in 1962 with Flannery O’Connor’s assistance. “Fourteen years later, Williams joined Loyola University New Orleans where he established and edited ‘The New Orleans Review. In 1970, he was back at UA as a member both of the English department or the graduate program in creative-writing.

His growing status in literature was evident in the honors he received starting in the 1950s. These included the Henry Bellman Award, Breadloaf Writers Conference Fellowship for Poetry in 1961, Harvard University’s Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship for Poetry in 1963-64 and New York Arts Fund Award for 1970. Also, Fulbright Professorship at National University of Mexico, Prix de Rome for Literature 1976, and Charity Randall Citation for Contribution To Poetry as a Spoken Arts in 1993.

Williams was awarded the John William Crrington Award for Literary Excellence in 1994 as well as the National Arts Award (1997).

Gatewood wrote that Williams gave lectures and readings about tours to several continents, while mentoring UA students at the State Department’s request. “President Bill Clinton selected him as the speaker for his poem, “Of History and Hope”, at the 1997 presidential inauguration. Williams described himself as a South-born product. His long involvement in science was also important in shaping his poetry.

Williams was known for his diverse imagination and use of irony. A journalist described him as the Hank Williams of American poetry. Miller Williams was presented with the Porter Prize’s Lifetime Achievement Award for 2009. The UA Press gives the Miller Williams Poetry Prize each year.

Williams died Jan. 1, 2015, at Fayetteville. His daughter Lucinda, despite his fame as poet, became even more popular as a songwriter/recording artist. She has received multiple Grammy Awards. Time magazine named her America’s best songwriter in 2002.

“As a kid, she met many father’s writing friends, including Eudora Mundy and Flannery Connor, who famously let Lucinda chase her peacocks,” Philip Martin of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote. She was 12 years old when she began writing her own songs and performing for her parents. After a brief time at the UA, she became an itinerant performer, performing in bars and coffee houses throughout Austin, Nashville, Houston, Greenwich Village, and Houston.

Lucinda Williams was the headliner of a benefit concert in September 2007 to raise funds for Miller Williams Poetry Prize.

Miller Williams was growing in Arkansas’ small towns, while Gatewood was raised in North Carolina on a tobacco farm. Gatewood was born in February 1931. His bachelor’s, masters and doctorate were all from Duke University. In 1957, Gatewood began his college teaching career at East Tennesssee State University. Gatewood was also a teacher at East Carolina University, North Carolina Wesleyan College, and the University of Georgia.

Gatewood arrived in Arkansas in 1970 to be the University’s first Alumni Distinguished Professor for History. This chair was endowed by the alumni association. The chair was his until his retirement in 1998. He was UA chancellor between 1984 and 1985, taught hundreds of undergraduates, and directed 25 doctoral theses. Some of those students went onto become college history professors.

Tom DeBlack, a Arkansas historian, said that Gatewood was the recipient of most major awards at UA during his tenure, including the University Distinguished Research Award (1980) and the Chancellor’s Medal for Distinguished Service (1994). “He was the author or co-author of 14 books, and more than 75 articles for scholarly journals. His books included many pioneering works in African American history.

Gatewood’s book “Aristocrats of Color, The Black Elite 1880-1920” was published in 1990 by UA Press and nominated to the National Book Award. Gatewood served as president of the Southern Historical Association from 1986 to 1987.

In 2002, UA Press published “The Southern Elite & Social Change: Essays to Honor of Willard B. Gatewood Jr.” These essays were written by former students as well as colleagues.

The book’s introduction stated: “There will, no doubt,” other great scholars and teachers. However, all contributors to this volume agree that Dr. Willard B. Gatewood Jr. has been a deep teacher and scholar. He is the reason we have an abiding passion and respect for history.

Gatewood died October 2011, Gatewood died in October 2011. It sold over 10,000 copies within 10 months, and was widely praised by critics.

Gilchrist is a Vicksburg, Miss. native. She graduated from Vanderbilt University, and then received a second degree from Millsaps. There she studied under Welty. Gilchrist, who did postgraduate work at UA in creative writing, was a contributing editor to the Vieux Carre Courier in New Orleans between 1976 and 1979. She also published her first poetry book.

Gilchrist chose to publish “The Land of Dreamy Dreams”, rather than a commercial publisher. Its success led to a contract with Little, Brown & Co. Her short story collection, “Victory Over Japan”, won the 1984 National Book Award in Fiction.

UA Press hired Stephanie Brown as its first editor in July 1982 after Gilchrist’s 1981 collection. Williams was still responsible for the majority of manuscript acquisitions. In February 1984, UA Press established a student award for writing. It opened a London office two years later. It established a journal department in 1988 that produced scholary publications.

Riffel stated that UA Press was a leading publisher for American poets by the 1990s. “The press published additional books of poetry that were nominated for awards, in addition to Frank Stanford’s posthumous works. … Because of his friendship with Williams, Jimmy Carter became a major contributor to the list of authors over these years. Carter was able to write on many topics through the press.

Carter’s books include “An Outdoor Journal – Adventures and Reflections”, published in 1988, and “The Blood of Abraham – Insights into Middle East” in 2008.

White was elected chancellor in 1997. He decided to shut down the press after it lost so much money. His decision sparked controversy statewide.

Riffel wrote that Gatewood and other Arkansans responded by launching a public campaign to keep the doors open. White resigned in 1998 after admitting that the plan for shuttering the press was misguided. The funding provided by Tyson Foods, Springdale allowed the press to reorganize itself as a non-profit organization and continue publishing new titles.

“The press hired Lawrence Malley in 1998 as its director. Under his guidance, it expanded its explorations into Middle East books. This was in response to the establishment at the UA of the King Fahd Center For Middle East Studies and Islamic Studies. Recent years have seen Arkansas history made a significant contribution by the press, with the release of the Histories of Arkansas series. It traces Arkansas’s past from its territorial period to the modern era. Malley retired in 2013, and Mike Bieker, former assistant director, became director.

The publishing house continues to be a strong focus on poetry, fiction, and books about the Middle East.

The awards keep coming in. Kathleen Condray was awarded the 2021 Booker Worthen Literary Prize for “Das Arkansas Echo: A Year In the Life of Germans, Nineteenth-Century South”. Kenneth Barnes was awarded the 2022 J.G. for his book “The Ku Klux Klan: How Protestant White Nationalism Came into Rule a Country” Arkansas Historical Association, Ragsdale Book Award

“Winthrop Rockefeller, From New Yorker To Arkansawyer 1912-1956” was published earlier this year by John Kirk, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. It is already getting acclaim.

Cherisse Jones Branch, ASU history professor, has received positive reviews for her book “Better Living With Their Own Bootstraps: Black Women’s Activism in Rural Arkansas (1914-1965).”

My winter reading list includes “Country Boy: the Roots of Johnny Cash” by Colin Edward Woodward, and “Up South In the Ozarks” by Brooks Blevins of Izard Country.