A whimsical look at life growing up in the small town of Waldron, Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s, plus occasional observations from the present. Want to start at the very beginning? Click HERE.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Freddie Rush Murder Trial

The long, cold Scott County winter of 1965 was warmed considerably by the occasionally sizzling details of the Freddie Rush murder trial.  The trial in the old Scott County courthouse was heavily attended; my older brother told me that he went every day, and I even remember Mama stopping by one day with my sister and I in tow.  It was so crowded that we couldn't even get in; I just remember peering into the crowded courtroom up on the second floor of the old courthouse.  The event was so significant that at least one local teacher took her students there for a field trip.  Murder trials didn't happen very often in Waldron, and this one was better than any episode of Perry Mason on TV.

This was actually Freddie's second trial for the murder.  Freddie had been convicted of first degree murder a year or so earlier at Fort Smith, where the crime occurred, and sentenced to life in prison.  But his attorneys had argued for a change of venue, and on appeal the Arkansas Supreme Court had agreed, reversing the conviction and ordering a retrial, which was to be held in Waldron.

The victim in the case was Freddie's stepfather, Paul Rush.  Paul was a successful businessman who owned the Waldron Furniture Manufacturing Company and the Hardwood Plant, both Scott County businesses.  But he lived in Fort Smith, where he also owned a furniture manufacturing plant called V&R Sales Company.  The building is still there; it's the three story brick building down by the Arkansas River, next door to the Park at West End.  That's where Paul lost his life; in the darkened basement on the night of May 13, 1962.  It was Mother's Day.
The building where the murder took place,
as it appears today.

That night, Freddie and his wife and children happened to be driving past the building when Freddie noticed a light on upstairs.  This was unusual, since it was Sunday and normally all the lights were turned off.  So, he drove over to his stepfather Paul's house to report what he had seen.  They all then traveled back to V&R Sales Company to investigate.

At the trial in Waldron, Freddie's wife Charlotte was asked why they didn't call the police instead of going to investigate the matter themselves.  She said that Paul had instructed them to never call the police.  So, while Charlotte waited in the car, Paul and Freddie entered the building.  After a little while, she heard a scream.  Freddie then came running from the building, a gunshot wound to his shoulder.  Paul was not with him; he was lying on the basement floor, shot in the head.

Freddie later testified that when the entered the building, they didn't find anything suspicious inside the office where the light was on.  But Paul wanted to check the basement, and when they went down there they couldn't get the light to turn on.  Suddenly, in the darkness, two shots rang out.  Paul collapsed on the floor and Freddie, wounded, ran for his life.

The police interviewed Freddie in the hospital, but the trail soon went cold.  Freddie, after recovering from his gunshot wound, posted a reward for information about the shooting.  But, his personal life in disarray and his marriage over, Freddie left the area for the greener pastures of Houston, Texas.  He left behind a lot, including his longtime girlfriend, Pat Taylor.  That proved to be an unfortunate mistake. 

Pat was living in a motel in Fort Smith along with her cousin, Carolyn Brown.  Carolyn was dating a young man named Raymond Wood, who appears to have been Freddie's cousin.  Let me share a particularly pithy quote from the Arkansas Supreme Court's official citation of the Rush vs. State appeal:

Fred appears to be pretty much a libertine; although he was married and living with his wife, he was keeping Pat Taylor.  About nine months after the murder of Paul, Fred quit Pat Taylor and began to bestow his affections on one Louise Bromley.  Along about the first of February 1963, he left Fort Smith with Louise Bromley and Carolyn Brown.  They went to Houston, Texas, where they all lived together in an apartment.

About a month after Fred left for Houston, Pat went to the police and told them that Freddie, Raymond Wood, and Carolyn Brown had conspired to kill Paul Rush, and that the plans to carry out the conspiracy had been worked out in her apartment and in her presence. 

The arrest and conviction of Freddie Rush followed.  The state's case was pretty strong; they maintained the Freddie himself had gone by V&R sales company earlier that Sunday and turned on the light, so that when he and his family drove by later, it would be on.  Raymond Wood was waiting inside the building with a .22 rifle.  Carolyn Brown was waiting outside in a car, ready to drive Raymond away from the scene of the crime.  After luring his stepfather down into the basement, Freddie watched as he was shot in the head and killed, and just to make it look real, Freddie took a gunshot wound to the shoulder.  In case the police were on to them, earlier that afternoon Raymond and Carolyn had gone out and shot an old .22 pistol, so that they would have an excuse for gunshot residue to be on Raymond's hands if they were checked. 

Freddie was sentenced to life in prison, but in an interesting turn of events, both Raymond Wood and Carolyn Brown were found not guilty in separate trials later that summer.  So, when Freddie's request for a retrial was granted, that little twist would make things interesting.

So, and forgive me for taking so long to get to this point, we now arrive at the sensational trial in the Courthouse of little Waldron, Arkansas.

As soon as the state presented it's opening theory as to the particulars of the crime, the defense moved for an immediate acquittal.  Their position was that the State still maintained that Raymond Wood and Carolyn Brown were involved in a conspiracy to kill Paul Rush, and that two different juries had determined that they were innocent.  Judge Paul Wolfe did not agree, so the trial continued.

The rest of the trial was pretty much a rehash of the earlier trial in Fort Smith; the State maintained that Freddie, Raymond, and Carolyn had planned and carried out the murder.  The Defense presented five witnesses, including Freddie's wife and later his mother, who testified about the financial condition of the company.  Then, after final instructions from Judge Paul Wolfe, at 2:00 p.m. on January 29, 1965, the fate of young Freddie Rush was placed into the hands of the twelve Scott County residents who made up the jury.  The only issue before them was guilt or innocence of first degree murder.  It was a difficult deliberation.

At 8:00 p.m. that night, the jury announced that it was "hung."  The court asked about numbers, and the jury foreman responded "10-2."  After further deliberation that night, the jury was sent back to a local motel.  After a night's rest, they returned the next day, Saturday, at 9:00 a.m.  At 11:30 the jury again returned to the courtroom.  Judge Wolfe inquired as to their progress, and the jury foreman responded, "We are locked."  The jury returned to their deliberations, and broke for lunch at 12:45.  Returning for more deliberations, they again reported to the court at 3:50 that they were "hung."  Judge Wolfe asked the jury, "Are there any questions that you all have that you might properly ask the Court, or are there any questions pertaining to the law in this matter?"  Since there were none, the jury returned to it's deliberations.

At 6:00 p.m. that night, the jury again returned to the courtroom and Judge Wolfe, over the objections of the Defense, instructed the jury on second degree murder and manslaughter.  One hour later the jury returned with a verdict:  guilty of murder in the second degree.  They fixed the punishment at 12 years in the penitentiary. 

Freddie's attorneys filed notice of appeal, and Freddie was released on bond.  The Arkansas Supreme Court did not support the introduction of second degree murder as an option after 28 hours of deliberation, calling it "bargaining with the jury."  So, Freddie's conviction of second degree murder was reversed and a new trial, the third, was ordered.
Google Street View of the Rush Building

It is here that the historical record of this case grows cold.  I have found no evidence that there ever was a third trial.  Freddie evidently lived out his life as a free man.  He died in 1997 at age 60, after working as a computer analyst for Sperry-Unisys Corporation. 

The murder of Paul Rush was never solved. 

Couch and chair manufactured by Rush Furniture Co.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Best Job I Ever Had

The Gardner Building Lecture Hall, vacuumed daily by me.
In the fall of 1974, I had just graduated from Waldron High School, and my twin sister and I were very excited about going away to college.  "Away" was actually 50 miles north up Highway 71, to the big city of Fort Smith, Arkansas.  There, we would live with my older brother Gary and his wife and attend a two-year community college called Westark.  Although we would be coming home on weekends, the whole thing still seemed like a pretty big deal, and Janet and I could hardly wait to get started.

We had both worked during the summer after high school, she at the local Department of Human Services and me at the Scott County Road Department, and by pooling our money we had been able to buy a very nice 1973 Buick Century, which, being twins, we shared.  To afford college, we knew we would both have to find part time jobs.  Fortunately, my sister-in-law worked at Westark and was able to arrange for jobs for both of us.  Janet would be a student worker in my sister-in-law's office, and I had a job at the campus book store.  When I found out about my job during that summer before classes began, I felt that my vast experience as a sweeper in high school would be squandered, so I asked my sister-in-law if there were any jobs available of a custodial nature.  Yes, I, in another of my brilliant moves, traded a cushy clerical job in which I would undoubtedly be surrounded by beautiful coeds all day for a job in which I would be surrounded by what surely would be lesser companionship.  Brilliant.

But, nevertheless, my sister-in-law was able to find me a custodial job.  It was to be quite different from my high school job as a sweeper.  This was a job that would allow me to experience the beautiful outdoors.  I would spend three hours each day walking around the expansive Westark campus, a plastic trash can in one hand and a "grabber" in the other, picking up trash that had found its way onto the campus grounds. 

Those first few days at Westark took on a dreamlike state.  The place seemed so big, and college was so different from high school!  It was exciting to be there, but that was tinged with just a little bit of homesickness, too.  It's amazing how powerful music is.  One of the popular songs of that day was Elton John's "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me."  I remember hearing that song on my first day at Westark, as I walked through the student center.  Now, whenever I hear that song, I am immediately transported back to that moment, feeling the exact emotions I felt that day.

Although rather common now, I was rather intrigued with the mechanical grabber that I was provided with for the job.  On my first day Tom, one of the custodians who was more or less my supervisor, was dispatched to a local convenience store to buy a new grabber, because the one used by my predecessor was completely worn out.  So, grabber in hand, I set about to walk all around the campus, picking up litter.  When I would fill my trash bucket, which I did several times each day, I would find a dumpster and empty the contents, then start again.

I discovered a couple of perks quite quickly.  The first was coke bottles.  Now please understand, in the south, when we say coke we are not referring specifically to Coca-Cola; in my neck of the woods any brand of soft drink is called a coke.  As in, "What kinda coke you want, Bubba?"  So, as I walked, anytime I came across an empty "coke" bottle, I carefully placed it in my trash can, and was careful to take it out before depositing the rest of the contents into a dumpster.  In those days, empty coke bottles were worth from three to five cents apiece, depending on where you redeemed them, so a trunk full of coke bottles could provide a little bit of spending money.  And I would usually find enough to redeem them every month or so.  The other perk was actual money, which I did find on rare occasions.  Oh, I often found a nickel or dime or quarter.  But, there was the occasional great day when I would find a dollar, or maybe even a five.  That would prove to be a great supplement to my $1.75 per hour salary.

The other benefits of the job were less obvious to me at the time.  I don't think it's bragging to tell you that I don't think I missed a day of work that year.  Every day, rain or shine, during the hot and humid days of late August and early September, through the frigid days of January and February, I was out there, making my rounds.  I would start at the student center, work my way down the main parking lot, then head west toward the gym.  At the corner I would turn back north, working my way past the baseball field up toward the building that lined Grand Avenue, the main part of the campus.  At the Science Building, I would head east, past the little Holt Building that housed the library (one of my favorite places on campus), then past the Ballman-Speer building where the music students took their classes, then past the Vines Building, which housed most of the administrative offices on campus (and where I would work some 35 years later), then around the new Gardner Building at the corner of Grand and Waldron

As you can see, that was quite a bit of walking.  So, without really trying, I found that the excess weight that I had acquired during my junior high and high school days began melting off.  The greatest of all the perks of the job was the three hours of exercise that I got each day. 

I also learned the value of showing up for work.  With that came another lesson on how to treat people.  One cold February day, I was picking up trash outside the Holt Building.  The door opened, and Dr. Curtis Ivery stepped outside.  Dr. Ivery didn't know me, and I was not one of his students, but he had stepped outside just to talk to me.  "I've noticed that you're out here every day, picking up trash," Dr. Ivery said.  "I just want to tell you how nice the campus looks because of you, and that I appreciate the work you're doing."  With that, he smiled and went back inside. 

I think I stood there for a brief moment.  No one had ever acknowledged me before, or the seemingly insignificant work I was doing, but Dr. Ivery had taken the time to do it. 

The memory of Dr. Ivery's words stayed with me, and in all my subsequent jobs, as a teacher, a principal, and a learning center director, I have always tried to do what Dr. Ivery did; take the time to acknowledge other people's work.  A couple of years ago, I googled Dr. Ivery's name and found an email address for him; he's now an official at a college up north.  I related my recollection to Dr. Ivery, and thanked him after 35 years or so.  He sent back an extremely gracious and complimentary email, which was no surprise.

Well, I guess Tom and the other custodians were pleased with my work, because the next year I got a promotion.  I was to be the student worker janitor for the Gardner Building.  That year, my job consisted of taking a large rolling trash can to every location in the building and emptying the trash.  Then, I would vacuum the carpet in the large lecture hall on the first floor, and then the carpet in all the offices upstairs.  So, I had a little more human interaction in my new job, but I kind of missed getting to work by myself. 

I recall one somewhat amusing but unfortunate incident that occurred.  The nursing department was in the Gardner Building, and the lady who was the Director of the department had an office upstairs.  In her office was a braided rug that came from an Indian reservation out west.  She was quite proud of her rug, but it didn't have to be vacuumed very often.  But one day, she decided that it probably needed it, so she asked me to vacuum it.  I fired up my vacuum and worked diligently, but when I finished I looked around and the air in her office was completely filled with dust.  She walked back into her office, and I sheepishly retreated, leaving her standing there gaping at her uninhabitable office.

After two years at Westark, it was time to transfer to a four-year college.  My choice was Arkansas Tech in Russellville.  I'll write about that in another post sometime.   But I cherish my time at Westark, and the hours spent walking around that pretty little campus, working at the best job I ever had.

Monday, December 5, 2011