Riley Jo Taylor arrived at Dean Hall for her Thursday night class the first week of October, just as she had for the past month at the outset of the fall 2019 semester at Arkansas Tech University.
She sat alongside her fellow students and waited for the lecture to begin, but the main lesson for the evening wasn’t in their textbooks—it was in the hearts of a tightly-knit group of generous ATU alumnae dedicated to supporting student access and success.
Riley Jo graduated from Jessieville High School in 2017 and chose ATU because she liked the agriculture program. It was just the right fit for a girl from rural Arkansas.
Sixty-two years earlier, another country girl had made her way to Arkansas Tech. Lou Nell McCraw was from Waldron. Her destiny included a degree from Tech, a distinguished career as a music educator and the formation of lifelong friendships with a group known as the Caraway Hall Third Floor Girls.
But there was another reason fate drew Lou Nell to Tech. “I met a real good man here who was an Ag major,” she told Riley Jo’s class. “We were married for almost 60 years.”
It was the memory of her late husband, Donald Duane Davis, that brought Lou Nell, the rest of the Caraway Hall Third Floor Girls and Riley Jo together that atypical night in October 2019.
By the time they parted company, and Riley Jo returned to class, another link was established in the chain that has connected the Arkansas Tech family for generations.
The Caraway Hall Third Floor Girls came from places such as Waldron, Paris and Keiser…the type of rural Arkansas communities that have funneled students to Arkansas Tech since it opened its doors for the first day of class on Oct. 26, 1910.
The third floor of Caraway Hall could accommodate about 18 female students in the mid-1950s. It was home to Lou Nell and several young women with similar academic pursuits, women like Shirley Drewry, Carolyn Leek and Virginia Horn. They were a blend of education and music students.
“We all have different personalities, and that’s what we enjoy most,” said Lou Nell. “We couldn’t have scraped up $50 between us. Things were different then. We had a great time. We laughed. We still laugh.”
There was a certain ingenuity about the Caraway Hall Third Floor Girls from the very beginning. They successfully petitioned Tech President J.W. Hull to purchase the college’s first color television set…and install it in the lobby of their dorm.
Many of the Girls enrolled at Tech in 1955. Barbara Creecy joined the group one year later after transferring in from Arkansas State University. It didn’t take her long to get comfortable at Arkansas Tech.
“[Lou Nell] was on one end of the hall and I was down on the other end, so I went down to her room and crawled into bed with her,” said Barbara. “I told her I was Barbara Creecy from northeast Arkansas. I was always shy, so I never understood why I did that.”
Lou Nell never thought a thing about it. She introduced herself, and the Girls had a new member.
Together, they used their collective grit and determination to overcome any challenge.
Virginia worked at Western Arkansas Telephone Company, where her supervisor was Arkansas Tech Class of 1938 member and 1974 Arkansas Tech Hall of Distinction inductee Jeanice Falls. Virginia walked from Caraway Hall to Russellville Downtown to perform her shift, which ended at 10 p.m. Then she walked back to her dorm and made preparations for another day of classes.
While work obligations made Virginia a night owl, Carolyn’s responsibilities made her an early riser. She would eat breakfast alongside the dining hall workers before the sun rose, continue on to Williamson Hall and practice French horn for more than an hour before the majority of campus was awake.
“If you waited until any other time of the day, you got disturbed,” said Carolyn. “I had never played a band instrument in my life. My mother wouldn’t let me because she was afraid I wouldn’t practice piano. When I got to Tech, they handed me a trumpet. I could not make a sound out of it. Then they gave me a French horn mouthpiece and said, ‘take that back to the dorm and do not come back to class until you can buzz it.’ So, that’s what I did. I played French horn in the band for four years. Did not know how to march…did not know anything that was connected with the band…but I learned, and I loved it.”
Shirley recalls traveling on the ‘Green Demon’ bus during her days as an Arkansas Tech cheerleader. One ride in the hills on Arkansas Highway 7 following a basketball game stands out in her memory.
“That Green Demon groaned and creaked, and we bumped a cow,” said Shirley. “We were going so slowly, I don’t think we hurt it because it turned and bawled at us.”
Julie Nebben Morgan stood at the front of the agriculture class in Dean Hall that October 2019 evening.
Morgan, a 2018 inductee into the ATU Hall of Distinction, was the alumni director at Tech when the Girls began conducting annual reunions in 2009. She has remained connected with the group as a facilitator of their efforts ever since.
“What’s getting ready to happen is probably one of the best feel-good, do it for the right reasons, wonderful things I’ve ever been a part of at Arkansas Tech, and I’ve been a part of Arkansas Tech for almost 50 years,” Morgan told the class. “That’s how special this is.”
In 2013, the Girls started an annual scholarship to benefit a female student at Arkansas Tech.
For seven consecutive autumns, typically around Homecoming, the Caraway Hall Third Floor Girls have surprised the scholarship recipient by coming to one of her classes and making the presentation. Most often, the recipient is a student with grit and determination reminiscent of a certain group of female students more than 60 years ago.
Each scholarship has been presented in memory or honor of a member of the group. For 2019, the honoree was Lou Nell’s husband. They were married for 59 years, the last 45 of which were invested on their family farm in the Minnow Creek community near Lamar. It was there that Don passed away on May 28, 2019. He was 85.
Riley Jo knew none of this history as she sat in her seat, two rows from the window in Dean Hall, and listened to the Caraway Hall Third Floor Girls tell their story and talk about their scholarship.
She was a cheerleader at Jessieville High School, and her excellence in the classroom there once earned her a trip to the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock for special recognition.
At Arkansas Tech, Riley Jo joined the Ag Ambassadors student organization and became an advocate for the ATU Department of Agriculture. She is on pace to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture business with an emphasis in animal science in 2021.
Riley Jo arrived for class that night unaware that she was about to receive a $3,500 gift of love from people she had never met. Then Lou Nell called her name.
“I don’t even know what to think,” said Riley Jo moments after the announcement. “I wouldn’t be looking like this if I wasn’t surprised. I don’t even have words for it, but it will help me with school a lot. Everything counts. Whenever you all said that you knew each other from that long ago…I love seeing your group. I have my group of friends. Maybe one day that can be me, and we can continue what you are doing. I’ve got to give all of you a hug.”
Later, after the hugs were exchanged and the photos were taken, Lou Nell sat on a couch in the same Caraway Hall lobby she frequented more than six decades earlier. She was surrounded by memories of the dances, the teas and no doubt, her husband, Don.
“There’s a lot of water under the bridges,” said Lou Nell. “Right over there (pointing to a corner), we had a big, huge Christmas tree every year. Several of us have died, and several others are in poor health. We just keep wondering if we can do this one more year. [The scholarship] is really just an extension of how we always were and what we always did. That little girl [Riley Jo]…I know that she can use the money, and I know what a boost that would have given us. I hope it’s an inspiration for others to pay it forward.”
by Sam Strasner for the Tech Action, Spring 2020