Leader Blues

Friday, May 08, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Arkansas institution to end with school

The people at tiny Gillett in Arkansas County raised the stakes considerably in their battle to preserve the little high school, which has slumped to an enrollment of 88. If the high school goes, the Gillett Coon Supper may vanish, too, and who is willing to bear the blame for that cultural catastrophe?

No Arkansas politician certainly, although every one of them in his private sanctum is muttering, “Thank God.”

Gillett was one of those tiny school districts that were consolidated as a result of the school reorganization law that that the legislature passed in 2004. Now the DeWitt School District says it is wasteful to try to maintain a viable high school at Gillett with so few students, and the high school is to be closed and the students transported to De Witt. That is a process that affected tens of thousands of rural Arkansas kids the past 50 years, nearly all of them for the better.

The papers and television have carried stirring lamentations from parents, students and townspeople about what the loss of the high school and its athletic teams, the Wolves, will mean to the town. No one mentions the richer curriculum that will be available to the youngsters next fall.

The threat of ending the Coon Supper is supposed to give the school people at DeWitt pause. The Coon Supper has been a fixture on the political stump circuit since 1947. Townspeople cook up hundreds of raccoons, sans skin, and politicians come from the four corners of the state in January to be seen and meet before the election season begins.

The supper raises money for the athletic teams and is thrown in the gymnasium. It is a serious faux pas for a statewide politician to miss it, even if his job is not on the ballot that year. For generations, the Gillett Coon Supper was one of three such political feasts that politicians were expected to attend if they did not want to be shut out in the local precincts. The others were the Mount Nebo Chicken Fry at Dardanelle and the Pink Tomato Festival at Warren. At each one you were expected to be seen engorging on the local specialty.

Ripe pink tomatoes and fried chicken were one thing, but boiled raccoon quite another. Some politicians always made a serious effort to get down a helping of coon without retching; others made only a pretense, moving the meat around on their paper plates until they could ditch it in the trash bins. Bill Clinton said that forcing down boiled coon in front of a grinning crowd made every other ordeal in his political life — facing down Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority after the Democratic catastrophe in 1994, impeachment — seem like a cakewalk.

No politician will honestly plead for the coon supper to continue, but something tells us that, high school or no high school, the Gillett Coon Supper will still be with us, at least until climate change drives the critters to cooler climes. Then it may be the armadillo’s turn. — Ernie Dumas