The same day that Lawrence A. Davis Jr., assumed the office of chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 1991, his granddaughter, Kendra Cole, was born.
That was 22 years ago.
Cole, now a UAPB biology student, escorted Davis to the 26th annual Chancellor’s Benefit for the Arts, where he was being honored for his more than two decades of service that included some of the university’s darkest days — a $2.9-million budget deficit and a football program that had received death penalty status from the NCAA.
These problems didn’t occur under his watch; instead, he inherited them and eventually successfully resolved the university’s money crisis and made it possible for the Golden Lions to regain their glory.
Davis was introduced by his nephew, Ronald Davis, a UAPB graduate and Little Rock attorney, as a compassionate leader who “would fire someone and then lend them money.”
More than a job, the university’s well-being was personal to Davis.
“I grew up on the campus,” he told the audience of more than 300 that filled the Pine Bluff Convention Center on Feb. 16.
In fact, when he was 4, his father, Lawrence A. Davis Sr., began his tenure at then AM&N College (now UAPB) as an instructor. Before retiring, he served as the college’s president and chancellor, said Stephanie Sims, UAPB program specialist.
Davis Jr.’s entire education, from nursery school through college, except one year at Merrill High School, was done on the college’s campus. After earning a degree in math from AM&N, he would get a master’s degree in math from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and a doctorate in engineering at Iowa State University of Science and Technology at Ames.
Davis took the reins at UAPB after a unanimous decision by the Board of Trustees, and after retiring the debt and restoring the football program, he was instrumental in obtaining a $30-million state appropriation, which was used to upgrade a number of campus facilities.
The former chancellor, who left office on May 25, 2012, received a number of recognitions and honorary positions from various UAPB departments during the event, and was named chancellor emeritus.
Guest Staphea Campbell summed up the sentiment of many by saying, “It’s kind of hard to see Chancellor Davis go. He’s such an institution.”
Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Mary E. Benjamin served as mistress of ceremonies, while Calvin Booker, UAPB graduate and Southern Group of Waste Management Inc., corporate vice president for public affairs at Atlanta, Ga., was master of ceremonies.
This 2013 benefit theme was “In the Year of the Lion,” and recognized two additional individuals “who have contributed much” to the betterment of the university, as well as the local community.
At the event, J. Thomas May was honored “For his untiring service, business acumen and long-term commitment to UAPB, the Pine Bluff community and the state of Arkansas” as stated in the 30-page brochure, which was produced by the UAPB Museum and Cultural Center, the Department of Art, and the Office of Relations and Development especially for the evening.
During May’s introduction, M.K. Distributors Inc., owner and President George A. Makris, Jr., said, “Tommy is a compassionate person. He lives by the do-right rule.”
May has served as the chairman and CEO of Simmons First National Corporation and Simmons First National Bank since 1987. Shortly after taking the reins, “May plunged head first into community and civic activities” including promoting the university and its athletic program. He was instrumental in spearheading the fundraising campaign for the construction of the Golden Lion stadium,” Sims said.
May said, “I learned very quickly that UAPB brings many different values to our community and our state. UAPB is one of our major assets.”
In 2011, the university named the stadium’s fieldhouse, The J. Thomas May Fieldhouse, in honor of his dedication to the school.
May graduated from El Dorado High School and the UA at Fayetteville with a bachelor of science in business administration and master of business administration.
After May thanked the organizers for the honor, Benjamin added, “He [May] has transformed UAPB and he always answers our calls.”
In addition to Davis and May, UAPB Golden Lion Coach Monte Coleman was honored for “his coaching excellence, unwavering enthusiasm and athletic leadership as exemplified by the Golden Lion Football Team winning the 2012 Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship,” Sims said.
The win was the first SACC for the Lions.
The coach was introduced by First Assembly Senior Pastor Gary Bell, who said, “Monte is a winner. He is the champion of the Golden Lions.”
Coleman said, “I’m accepting this on behalf of our coaching staff and players. Each one deserves recognition for their hard work.”
Interestingly, Coleman didn’t play high school football but walked onto the field at University of Central Arkansas at Conway and earned a spot. In 1979, he became the first UCA player drafted into the NFL, playing for the Redskins.
The Pine Bluff native played in a Super Bowl four times, with three wins, was named one of the 70 greatest players in Redskin history, and in 1993, he made the All-Madden Team.
He was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and UCA’s Athletic Hall of Fame, and received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from his alma mater.
Coleman is also known for his volunteer work with organizations, including Make-A-Wish Foundation and United Way. He serves as an honorary chairman for both and is a former representative for the Washington, D.C., area Boys and Girls Club.
Henry Linton, event chairman and UAPB Department of Art chairman and University Museum and Cultural Center director, said about the evening, which included a short film about each honoree, “I’m pleased with the turnout and the program.”
The Chancellor’s Benefit for the Arts was started in 1987 as a way to raise funds to support a variety of art-related activities and cultural programs such as art exhibits, theatrical production, concerts, scholarships, and performance tours for the university’s choir, bands and theater groups.
While the UAPB 25-piece Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of Darryl Evans, performed and the three-course dinner was served that evening, Benjamin encouraged guests “to take advantage of the wonderful artwork [offered in the silent auction] in the lobby. It’s for a worthy cause.”
The artwork was donated by local, as well as nationally known artists like Kevin Cole, a UAPB graduate.
Interim Chancellor Calvin Johnson said about the turnout, “To all our valued friends, we appreciate your support. These donations make so much possible for our students.”