Passings


Inevitable, of course, that Arkansas should continue to lose its share of the Greatest Generation. Here now, some thoughts on two of them, because too little will be written about them elsewhere. They died within days of one another, World War II veterans who came home and, in civilian life, displayed the same honor, the same character, that had sustained them in uniform.

For Phil Carroll, that meant months in a German prisoner of war camp, surviving on meager rations, subject always to the whims of his captors, vulnerable to the waves of tuberculosis and other diseases that roared through Stalag IV B. Fort Smith it was not. The Russians liberated him and his mates and, the war over, he earned his law degree at Fayetteville and had just joined Little Rock’s storied Rose Law Firm when some trouble began in Korea and the Army remembered his number. At least he got to remain stateside.

I knew Phil Carroll for 30 years (though we were not intimate friends) and not until his death, at 87, did I, and so very many others, learn that he had been a prisoner of war. Not uncommon in those of his era, he rarely spoke of his time in combat.

Phil Carroll spoke law. He practiced it with pride in his profession, every day of it spent at Rose, days comprising an astonishing 63-year career; he was at his office until almost the very end. Lawyer, teacher, churchman, volunteer, jurist, husband and father: the roles that hold a community together.

There was a visitation for Phil Carroll only a few hours after the funeral of a contemporary.

Six days a week Frank Lambright, clip-on suspenders securing baggy trousers, would board the elevator of his swanky, high-rise condominium near downtown Little Rock and then careen his battered Ford pickup a half-mile or so for his mid-day meal, at a little tavern that had elevated short-order cooking to haute cuisine. (The joint was closed on Sundays, a day for family, or he would have insisted they accompany him on the seventh day). This was after his retirement, and after his beloved Kathryn could no longer be cared for at their apartment and was moved to a nursing home.

I hit the place myself maybe twice a week, and so there came to be what I came to regard, to look forward to, as “lunches with Lambright.” They were never pre-arranged, nor was the conversational agenda. But the talk was always better than the food, which is saying a lot. And I suppose I came to think of him as an uncle, perhaps once- or twice- removed.

Frank Lambright was an Ashdown native, a Navy man, a one-time public school teacher and coach and, upon settling in Little Rock after his war, rather a success in the insurance business. Unlike altogether too many businessmen, however, Frank believed business owed the community something: it’s pro-bono time and talent. He reasoned there was more, or ought to be more, to business than the bottom line, the next quarter’s earnings; that civic engagement, public service, inevitably benefited the P in a P&L statement. And besides, it was — moral.

If taxation in Arkansas (and especially property taxation) was not immoral in Lambright’s estimation it was at least unheavenly, benefitting big shots at the expense of the little man. Thus was he a traitor to his class, amusing or irritating his pinstriped clubmates, even those who joined him on this or that business organization or arts foundation or other non-profit undertaking.

At one of our noon colloquies Frank was lamenting the Central High desegregation disaster of 1957. He paused, looked away. He could have, should have, done more to try to prevent it, he said quietly. He should have volunteered to help escort those nine black kids. But with a wife and two small children to support and his place in the business community not yet beyond the mob’s reach, and fearful of the economic retribution he might incite against his new employer, he had stayed away from Central. Kathryn, born to an old-line Little Rock family, had stood in for him, playing a leading role in the Women’s Emergency Committee that helped restore sanity amid the teacher purges and school closings. For two months, in 1958, Lambright was a member of the school board, resigning with all but one of his fellow moderates after protecting the district’s embattled superintendent from the financial furies of the segregationists.

Frank Lambright, who died last week at age 86, spent the rest of his life trying to make the amends he felt he owed his town, his state and himself. He more than succeeded.

Carroll. Lambright. Character.

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.