The Folklore Project
Herby and Harmon Ray for America
By James Seawel
They don’t make Republicans like Herby Early anymore, nor Democrats like Harmon Ray Seawel for that matter.
One of my earliest memories involves two living legends of Maynard Public Schools — Mr. Herb Early, my high school English teacher, and my dad, Mr. Harmon Ray Seawel, superintendent of schools. Locals — people from the old families who have lived in that Arkansas community since before the Civil War — often refer to the men in true down-home fashion as “Herby and Harmon Ray.” The two men, both long since retired, were veritable institutions within the institution.
The current sociocultural climate in our great nation has me reflecting on my coming-of-age years in the foothills of the rural Ozarks. Indeed, these times have me thinking about the two men who modeled for me how to find common ground despite ascribing to differing philosophies.
My memory takes me back to a simpler time, when Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas and Ronald Reagan was president of the United States. In fact, a majority of Arkansans had voted a split ticket to support both men. But my immediate concerns on this particular day were not political; they were practical. What was the afternoon with my dad to hold? Travel with me, if you will, back to the early 1980s, when I was but a child.
A dull, cinder-block room had been attached to the high school gymnasium like an architectural afterthought. This square space served as my dad’s office. This is where my grandpa had dropped me off and where my reconnection with my old man was made. What dad’s plans were for us on this long-ago day are now forgotten; I just remember wanting to hurry and leave campus to get away from big kids and boring adults. Maybe we had an afternoon fishing trip in the works, or perhaps we would seek something deep-fried and smothered in gravy. Likely, it was both. Regardless, Dad finally acquiesced to my impatience, but he informed me that before we could make our escape, we had to tend to one more matter.
“Let’s me and you go fire Herby,” Dad said to my absolute consternation. His friend, this Herby character, scared me to no end with his enormous eyes, which seemed capable of reading my very thoughts (and whose raucous belly laugh was liable to erupt at any moment). Herby Early scared the peewaddling fool out of me. Besides, when Herby got together with Harmon Ray, their exploitation of the English lexicon left me badly confused.
Years later, it would occur to me the pair had been speaking in code, not just on this occasion but in most of their interactions. Unless you had advanced training in the King James Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, it would have been hopeless to communicate with the two educated, country gentlemen when this enigmatic mood struck them. They employed this tactic to talk over the heads of their contemporaries when navigating delicate personnel issues, or — let’s be honest — when needing to convey a priceless social critique. In the workplace, the two men of faith could hardly risk delivering irreverent observations in their usual Ozark vernacular, what with their fellow fundamentalist pew-warmers also serving as their weekday colleagues. In a basketball-obsessed town, these two non-athletes scored their points with unmatched wit and supreme irony, delivered with Elizabethan flair.
No part of me wanted to visit Herby, much less fire him. My kid’s mind wasn’t quite sure what it meant to “fire” someone. While I didn’t care for the man who lived on a dead-end country lane back in the woods and upriver from me, no justifiable reason to set him on fire came to mind. At this point, however, I was prepared to do whatever it took to get off campus and on with my day. Imagine my relief when, sensing my discomfort, Dad reassured me that all that would be required of me would be to deliver the magic words “you’re fired” when prompted, nothing involving literal fire. A young Donald Trump I was not, but begrudgingly I accepted the challenge so as to finally leave campus.
Upon entering the high school principal’s office, there stood the tall man with his immense owl eyes glaring down at me. He greeted us in his trademark, disparaging manner before a wry expression overtook his bearded face. We endured his witticisms at our expense (he probably called us a “couple of damn Campbellites”).
When prompted, my shy but exasperated self overcame all hesitation, and I gave it my best shot: I fired Herby.
Contrary to my very real expectations, Herby did not go bananas. Instead, he unleashed an unworldly laugh that shook the room, thus indicating to my cautious mind that there would be no return fire. Finally, I eked out a deep breath and was pleased when the two giants ignored me to talk what seemed to me to be mind-numbing adult speak.
What the two rural schoolmen said that day is lost in time, but rest assured their dialogue was choice. Harmon Ray, observing the scowl on Mr. Early’s face, might have declared, “Herby, I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity.” Depending on which particular group of students or faculty he could use to juxtapose against his friend, Herby very well could have responded without missing a beat, “Yes, Harmon Ray, and I see that you have gathered unto you certain lewd fellows of the baser sort.”
Little did I know then that one of my dad’s good friends would become one of mine, and that we would develop our own repartee. The man who was so intimidating to me as a child would become one of my best and favorite teachers, just as he had been to my brother before me and to generations of Maynard students before and after our time.
But, how could this be? Mr. Early embodied everything that my family was not. He was no Yankee to be sure, but he was a descendant of Union sympathizers, while we had Rebel blood. (Yes, this was still relevant in heritage-rich, rural Arkansas, where “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past,” my apologies to Faulkner.) Furthermore, Herby was a Baptist deacon, Harmon Ray a Church of Christ preacher. Today, what separates those two Christian denominations seems peripheral, but in my youth, the doctrinal variances seemed without question an absolute matter of heaven or hell.
Herby was a Lincoln and Eisenhower Republican who deeply admired Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, and we were Democrats who revered FDR and spoke of Arkansas’s favorite son, Bill Clinton, in familial terms. (My entire extended family literally went through the stages of grief when Slick Willie let us down with the whole world watching.)
Despite it all, Herby and Harmon Ray forged a partnership that helped preserve the lifeblood of our rural community — Maynard Public Schools — yet they also managed to be good friends throughout many trying times in our community and nation. Each was a voice of reason.
Thankfully, my parents were secure enough in their parenting, their faith, and their politics that they allowed my brother and me unfettered access to their friend, colleague, and neighbor. They would have seen it as a great loss for us not to have known Mr. Early. His witty one-liners and anecdotes, which we couldn’t wait to repeat (in or out of context, and the more inappropriate the better), were doubtless well worth the risk of any indoctrination we might suffer at the hands of the bearded Baptist sage living on the old home place up on Tattle Creek, where generations of his ancestors had been friends and neighbors with our forebears.
The two educators learned long before my time that they could agree to disagree, and could disagree without being disagreeable. As stubborn as both of them were, they were also intellectually honest to a fault. They were always looking for a way to say “amen” instead of forever hunting a chance to demonize the other. Neither of them took cheap shots, and both had the wisdom and integrity not to entertain the ridiculous conspiracy theories that so many of the uninformed of both parties passed on as news. Each man empathized with the other’s point of view to the extent his conscience allowed. And when irreconcilable moments came, as they inevitably would, the two men remained civil, even if blunt in their disagreements.
It’s amazing what good men can accomplish when they work around disagreements toward a common goal. Most notably, in their case, it was furthering the well-being of Maynard students and improving the educational program they were charged with overseeing.
Their identities weren’t formed from simplistic, bumper-sticker slogans or from cherry-picked sound bites from cable news shows brought to them by pot-stirring journalists for hire. Neither waved the banner of their politics or faith blindly, and they had no problem praising the other side when such was warranted. They embodied the biblical proverb of iron sharpening iron. They had wisdom enough to appreciate that their saying something affirmative about the other’s faith or politics would not make them less of a Christian, nor a weaker Republican or Democrat. Rather, it spoke to their sense of fairness and honesty. Or, as we say in the hills, it made them the kind of person you could cross the creek with.
If either man were to change his religious or political affiliation this side of the Second Coming, it would truly shock me. Locally, Herby was for most of his life a minority with his dyed-in-the-wool Republican ways, and now Harmon Ray is an endangered species — a yellow-dog Arkansas Democrat. Their allegiances and loyalties are in their blood, but thankfully, their heads are not in their behinds. While faithful to their beliefs and loyal to their tribes, they are also capable of thinking for themselves. They certainly have their respective biblical scholars and partisan politicians, whose works have inspired and influenced them, but each man is an independent and original thinker. Furthermore, each would tell you that if you are looking to a politician or a preacher (my apologies to the Rev. Gov. Mike Huckabee) for your salvation, then you are up Fourche in a springtime flood without a paddle.
Regardless of your thoughts on him or his wife, Bill Clinton recently delivered a critique of the American populace that is hard to disagree with, irrespective of one’s politics. He argued that America’s “one remaining bigotry” is that “we don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.”
This era — with its corporate media empires and ruthless national political parties, pitting the American people against each other — leaves me longing for individuals like Herby and Harmon Ray, who could cut through all the hogwash and talk some sense and do some good. Herby was conservative, but he had compassion. Harmon Ray was progressive on some issues, but he honored traditional values. Ultimately, there wasn’t a whole lot the two men disagreed on, but when it came to Sunday-go-to-meeting and the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, each man respectfully went his separate way.
Herby recently recounted to me a scenario where some new convert to his political party insinuated that Herby was a RINO (Republican In Name Only) since he didn’t toe the (Tea) party line. Herby pointed out that he’d been a Republican since before the birth of this Democrat-until-Obama, and had a proud family history of Republicanism, while his accuser came from a long line of Dixiecrat supporters of Orval Faubus and George Wallace. His accuser was undeterred: To him, Herby was still a RINO. Similarly, Harmon Ray has been made to feel that his views are too old-fashioned for the modern Democratic Party, as a result of him not endorsing every countercultural mood swing of a national party that strays further and further left of his centrist political leanings. In a society where allegiances often shift and change like the wind, these two men are rock solid.
In my eyes — and in those of their friends, no doubt — the two men haven’t made any substantial changes to their basic political philosophies. The times have changed, the parties have changed, and thus, the politicians have changed. We find ourselves living in a very different Arkansas and a radically different America. They really don’t make Republicans like Herby anymore, nor Democrats like Harmon Ray, and for this, we are certainly no better off.
My proposal is this: Herby and Harmon Ray for America!
Send them as a pair to Washington on a unity ticket. I believe the two Maynard schoolmen could sit down with some black coffee and good sense and make some things happen for the betterment of America.