Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

Editor’s note: Public education advocate Baker Kurrus is penning a series about “school choice” and voucher programs in Arkansas. This week, though, Kurrus turns his attention to what his conservative dad might think of the other issues drawing debate at the Arkansas Capitol.

I have thought a lot about my Republican father, Andrew W. Kurrus Jr., over the last few weeks, for a couple of reasons. Pop died in 2003. My son Andrew and I spread his ashes last weekend, and I would like to tell you about that. But I also have been wondering how he would react to the foolishness that is going on at our state Capitol in the name of Republican conservatism.

Advertisement

Pop grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. He came to Pine Bluff to work, where he met, and then married, my beautiful bleeding-heart, affirmative action-supporting, proud liberal Democrat mother, Joan Baker. They had three kids by the time my mother was 24. They were married until Momma died in 1979. It wasn’t always smooth, but my conservative Republican dad got along with an outspoken liberal Democrat. That is certainly a rarity these days.

Ironically, they almost always agreed on major matters, but often for different reasons. They both supported Winthrop Rockefeller for governor in 1964, 1966 and 1968. My dad always wanted the most qualified person to get the job, whether male or female, Black or white. He hired Black women for the telephone company in the ’60s, and he would not tolerate racism or sexism. My mother thought that society should affirmatively make amends for years of racism, which she saw up close. I still have her ERA bracelet and Democrats for Rockefeller button. My dad didn’t wear buttons or go to a lot of rallies. But he worked hard against Orville Faubus every time he ran, and Pop was as excited as anyone when  Rockefeller defeated Jim Johnson in 1966. Pop admired Rockefeller because Rockefeller was honest, and gave everyone a fair shot.

Advertisement
Courtesy UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture
CAMPAIGNING IN 1966: Winthrop Rockefeller

In 1968 I remember watching the news and seeing the sanitation workers with their “I Am A Man” signs. I don’t recall my father’s exact words, but I remember him talking to me about the fact that those men were real men, and they deserved to be treated fairly and with respect. He respected and admired the Memphis men because all they wanted was to work for a living wage.

When my mother’s uncle used a racial epithet in our house in the mid-’60s, I remember my mother erupting and arguing. My dad calmly told him that we didn’t say that word in our house. When it happened again, Pop stood up and calmly threw him out. I think my father’s problem with racism and discrimination was rooted in his conservative view that everyone is entitled to some type of self-determination.

Advertisement

I know what Pop would say about bathroom bills. I remember when I was superintendent of the Little Rock School District, North Carolina was in the news with a bathroom bill. I was called by a local news station, asking me what I was going to do about the issue of who goes in which bathroom. I thought of my dad, and told the reporter that students and principals can work all of that out on site, and do so in ways that respect everyone. If it ever gets to be a problem, I will get involved. I knew that school principals and students had already worked through the few issues that had arisen. And nobody was shamed, or belittled, or singled out. My dad would not tolerate that under any circumstance. I told the reporter we had enough problems in LRSD without stirring up new ones.

I believe this “conservative” legislature is ignoring our real issues, and stirring up things that are not real problems. I believe my Republican dad would agree with me.

Advertisement

Pop would be disgusted by the ridiculous waste of time and money that’s gone to legislating against drag shows. He wouldn’t care how people wanted to dress as long as they didn’t impose on others, or hurt someone. He would say that people should be allowed to wear what they want to wear, and if they want to get together and have a show, have a show. As long as no one is forced to go, and no one gets hurt, keep the government out of the picture.

I know what he thought about same sex-marriage. Two of my parents’ best friends were Aunt Mary Jane and Aunt Allie Bess. My parents loved them, and so did I. It wasn’t an issue. I can hear my dad saying, “If people want to get married, what business is it of the government to tell them they can or they can’t.”  That’s the conservative view. Let people make up their own minds, and live their own lives, so long as they don’t impose on others. I know the abortion issue troubled him, but I don’t think he wanted the government to make those decisions. I know he thought a person who was terminally ill should have the right to die on his or her own terms. If he had recognized his Alzheimer’s, he would have taken his own life.

Advertisement

He was conservative, and he thought the government should do things that people couldn’t do for themselves. He wanted the streets to be maintained, the mail to run on time, and the military to be strong. He thought the government should have programs to help people who could not help themselves, but he thought able-bodied people should work. He believed in a strong system of universal public education. He and my mother both hoped that desegregated schools would be the big equalizer.

He never missed a day of work on account of illness in his 37-and-a-half-year career with the telephone company. He led the company’s local United Way drives.

Advertisement

Today’s Arkansas “conservatives” want to tell people what they can do, what they can see, how they can dress and what they can read. I wish Mike Huckabee would give them all a big glass of the Jesus juice he talked about when he was governor. I hope he still drinks it, like he did when he pushed to help children of undocumented workers, and when he pushed for passage of ARKids First health benefits for children. A true conservative will offer a helping hand to folks who need it, without judgment. My dad wanted people to have a chance to work and get out of poverty. But he wanted people to work, and be independent if they could be.

My father also thought that the Corps of Engineers had no business destroying the Cache River basin. He wanted to conserve the beautiful places, especially those where mallard ducks might rest during the winter. Pop loved duck hunting, and he enjoyed cooking a steak and drinking a beer after a good day’s hunt. He started drinking Michelob when he got his first social security check. He always drank beer out of a bottle, and he always wrapped the bottle in a white paper napkin.

I started duck hunting with my dad when I was little, and my son and I have shared every opening day since he was 5. Pop loved Labrador retrievers, and as a true conservative, he did not condone the shooting of hens. He said it was like stomping on a dozen duck eggs. My children called my dad “Popu.”  He gave all of my children the love of animals, especially dogs. Before Pop died he impressed on my son that we try our best not to shoot hens. We conserve them, and have more ducklings because we do.

When we finally made some improvements at our place so we could have a green timber hunting area, my son Andrew and I decided we would spread my dad’s ashes there. Pop loved hunting in the flooded timber. We decided we would spread his ashes at the exact place where the first mallard drake fell in our new green timber spot. We hunted unsuccessfully one Saturday. The next week, we tried again. The ducks were not plentiful, but we had a good chance early. Andrew shot, and accidentally knocked down a hen. I missed the drake. The hen skittered away and the dog couldn’t find it. We were dejected because this was going to be our last chance this season.

Advertisement

But we waited. Nothing much was happening, but finally a drake and a hen circled in. My son and I shot at the same time, and the drake fell. The Lab retrieved it. The sun was shining. The sky was blue. I looked at my son, thought of my father, and wished everyone had a dad like mine, and a family like mine.

We unloaded our guns, walked to the spot, and I poured my father’s ashes into the shimmering water. They drifted and disappeared. My son Andrew pulled a bottle of Michelob Ultra out of his backpack. He wrapped a white napkin around it, and he gave me the first sip. I gave it back to him and he took a drink. We poured the rest of it out right on the spot where the beautiful drake fell.

We cried. I felt a warm sense of relief, like I had come home from a long journey. As we walked out of the woods, the dog found the hen. I asked Andrew if we would have opened the beer if that was the only duck we shot. “No way,” he said. “Popu would not have wanted that.”

I thought of the true conservative. I now know his resting place, but I wonder where the rest of them have gone.