The brains behind the defining festival in Faulkner County as well as a lifelong journalist who was the managing editor of the Log Cabin Democrat, John Ward passed away Thursday. He was 81.
Ward helped to create Toad Suck Daze, which has grown throughout the years to become a destination for fun-seekers throughout the state.
Today, the festival welcomes hundreds of thousands of people a year.
It was on a spring day in 1982 when John and his brother Bill conjured up plans to give the city of Conway an injection of spirit, of joie de vivre.
They were inclined to believe what the city needed was a celebration that would create a sense of pleasure and fun and "attract some much-needed attention to the many attributes of Conway."
So it was relatively easy to zero in on a festival — family oriented and something really fresh and quirky and different from all other celebrations.
In those early years, the Wards looked at the various stories about how Toad Suck got is name and created "The Legend of Toad Suck" which is still the touchstone of toad lore.
John Ward bravely predicted that 6,000 people were expected for the first celebration at Toad Suck Park, across the river in Perry County. At the end of the day, some 25,000 people showed up for the first year. From day one, the growth of the event was incredible.
The celebration was moved to downtown Conway in later years when rains washed out a Toad Suck event in Perry County.
Toad Suck Daze has generated thousands for scholarships for Faulkner County students, and it has become one of the premier events in the Southeast United States.
A one-time high school band director, Ward was married, the father of two children, and a full-time reporter at the Arkansas Democrat while finishing his B.A. degree requirements at night at what was then Little Rock University. A native of Damascus, Ward was a few credits short of a music degree from what was Arkansas State Teachers College – now University of Central Arkansas – when he turned to newspaper reporting.
Ward spent his time "making his own assignments, making his own photos" and going where he wanted. At that time, the editor of the Arkansas Democrat would run whatever he wrote.
During central Arkansas’s school integration crisis in the late 1950s, Ward and a Democrat photographer were surrounded by angry segregationists at their rally in Pine Bluff but were able to walk away unharmed when the photographer vowed to record the situation.
Longtime friend former Sen. Stanley Russ of Conway said Ward always remained true to his rural roots whether he was "rubbing shoulders with governors or presidents" — Ward photographed President John Kennedy in Heber Springs and attended White House briefings with President Jimmy Carter — referring to Ward as a true "Renaissance Man."
"Whatever he wanted to accomplish, he did," Russ said. "He wasn’t confined to one path in life."
Ward was a professional saxophone player who managed to play in his wife’s combo as well as other bands late into his life, and he was also known for being part of the Ward Family Singers.
Descendants of the late Roy and Mamie Ward of Bee Branch, the singers began meeting at various places to sing their favorite songs. Often they met at the "the farm," owned by John and located about eight miles east of Bee Branch. The group had taken items from their parent’s home and placed them at "the farm."
There were six living children of Roy and Mamie Ward: In addition to John, Marketa Evans, Loweta Turney, Joe D. Ward, Bill Ward and Judy Roach. Several of the second generation of Wards were members of The Ward Family Singers, as well as spouses of the six Ward siblings. The singing group often performed throughout Arkansas. The group also made several recordings.
Ward served 12 years as managing editor of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway. He also founded the Institute of Politics and Government in Arkansas and served as its chair for several years.
"John walked that tightrope between good journalism and good public relations as well as any person I have ever known in the business," said David McCollum, Log Cabin sports columnist, 30-year veteran of the staff, whom Ward, as managing editor, hired in 1982.
"He was able to do that because of both his keen instincts for news, his wit, his visionary approach to marketing and his love of people and what makes them tick.
"I recall three stories that illustrate that.
"Once an irate female called him after a city council meeting in a Faulkner community. She said another council member had called her a very unflattering name at the meeting the night before and wanted to make sure we printed his quote concerning that in the paper so she could sue him for slander or libel. Without batting an eye, John told her, ‘M’am we can certainly do that but I must inform you that truth is an absolute defense for slander.'
"Another time, a local minister called him to complain that we had published a story that originated from a letter a minister had written to members of his congregation. He said letters from pastors or ministers to their church members were private and should not become public or printed. To which John replied, ‘So therefore, you do not approve of half of the New Testament because half of it consists of the Apostle Paul’s letters to his churches.’ Silence on the other end of that conversation.
"I also remember in the early days of Toad Suck Daze, John called two or three local politicians to assemble in a pasture for a front-page photograph of them holding and inspecting cow chips for bulk, stability and consistency. It was something only John Ward could have probably done — to get three of our most prominent political leaders to gather in a field to check out cow chips."
Ward was a member of the board of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and served as chair for four years. He became director of information services for the University of Arkansas System until 1988 when he was named vice president for public affairs at the University of Central Arkansas.
During his eight years as communications director at UCA, Ward taught journalism and served as president of the UCA Foundation.
He eventually joined the administrative staff of the University of Arkansas System, where he remained until January 2005, when he was named director of marketing and public relations for the Winthrop Rockefeller Center, now Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, on Petit Jean Mountain. He also served as a director of the Oxford American, a literary magazine published at the University of Central Arkansas.
His honors include the American Cancer Society’s Special Citation for a series of articles he wrote about laryngectomees, the "Chairman’s Award for Outstanding Service" from the Institute of Politics and Government, "Man Of the Year 1981" from the Arkansas Press Association, the "Distinguished Service Award" from the Arkansas Press Association in 1982, and the "Distinguished Service Award" from UALR in 1983.
He was a charter member and former president of the of the Arkansas chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, Society of Professional Journalists.
"There are so many stories about John that I could tell," Russ said. "But they would fill a book."
Fred Petrucelli and David McCollum contributed to this report