Don Tyson died on Jan. 6, 2011, and afterward Willie Nelson dedicated a concert to his friend. He called it the “No Bad Days” picnic, a reference to Don’s outlook on life. He was survived by three daughters, Carla, Cheryl and Joslyn, and a son, John H. Tyson, who took over the family business after his father’s death. The family business was chickens.
In an interview with NPR not long ago, the author Christopher Leonard mentioned Don while discussing his book on the chicken industry, titled “The Meat Racket.” “I think he was a genius,” Leonard said. “Don Tyson had the ability to see the world as it did not yet exist.” John H. Tyson is not a genius, but he is a collector of modern art, a former cocaine addict and an evangelical Christian.
His religious awakening was swift and dramatic, and it arrived along with an incident of divine inspiration. Namely, it was revealed to John H. Tyson that he was to build a country club and golf course, one of the finest in the country, and so he did build one, along Clear Creek in Fayetteville, and he named it Blessings. Wikipedia calls Blessings “one of the most difficult golf courses in the U.S.,” and notes that “accuracy off the tee is a must.”
The Observer visited Blessings on a recent Sunday morning. The club is private, but a relative is a member and invited us along for breakfast. Her membership, she said, was what is called a “social membership,” meaning that it does not cover the world-renowned golf course (she doesn’t play), but does cover access to the clubhouse, its gym and swimming pool. It costs $70 per month.
Tyson enlisted the architect Marlon Blackwell to design the clubhouse, which was to be modern in the sense of the de Koonings and Warhols that Tyson purchased at auction. Blackwell, who has been called a “radical ruralist,” is the subject of a 2005 monograph called “An Architecture of the Ozarks” (the reference is to the Arkansas writer Donald Harington). “A builder, not a critic,” David Buege wrote in his introduction to the book, “Marlon Blackwell is inclined to accept the conditions of this world as they are, with all of their messy contradictions, and to work with or around those unencumbered by paralyzing idealism.”
John H. Tyson was and is generally unencumbered by paralyzing idealism, true, but Blessings is an exception: It is a work of concentrated idealism unencumbered by economic or spatial logic, or by self-doubt. The clubhouse is a strange masterpiece, a pile of rectangles, a set-piece from a Russian science-fiction film. It looks like an art museum, or like a dentist’s office designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It looks, somehow, like a church. The men’s locker room is four times the size of the women’s.
The Observer had eggs Benedict, though it wasn’t called that, and my relative had chocolate chip pancakes. I also ate half of one of the pancakes and it was delicious. The place was quiet and surprisingly empty, which only added to the sense of spirituality. We were the elect. There was only one other person in the dining room, a man wearing Oakley sunglasses, a striped polo and golf cleats. He looked out at the expanse of the course from the enormous floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the back wall, as if mentally preparing himself for Blessings, where accuracy off the tee is a must.
The clubhouse walls were covered in paintings, including some by the artist George Dombek, his series on rustic barns. Dombek grew up in Paris, Arkansas. In an interview with the magazine Western Art and Architecture, he said, “The last hour of daylight I like to walk around my property and look at how I can improve and work the landscape. I don’t separate living from art. To me, all of it is one and the same.” Walking through the corridors of Blessings, admiring its bathrooms, you can only conclude that John H. Tyson feels similarly.
Among his other accomplishments, which include the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship and the International Faith and Spirit at Work Award, Tyson has also, intriguingly, served on the Board of the Walden Woods Project, which aims to “preserve the land, literature and legacy of the quintessential American author, philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.” It would be fascinating to know how Tyson became interested in Thoreau, where he sees the areas of overlap in their philosophies.
The experience of Blessings, the fact of its existence, suggests at least one possible area. Speaking to a crowd about Thoreau’s personality, Emerson once said, “Positively small parties were much better, and a party of one was best of all.”