One of Ouachita’s longest-tenured faculty members, Dr. Bill Downs, chair of the department of mass communications, will retire at the end of this semester after 41 years of teaching (May 2007).
In 1966, Downs left a profitable career in public relations to come to Ouachita and called it “one of
the greatest gambles” of his life.
“From the moment I stepped on this campus, I never had a second thought,” he said. “It was where I was meant to be.”
Downs wore many hats in the early years of his Ouachita career. For twenty years, he was public relations director, alumni bulletin editor and advisor to the Signal, the Ouachitonian and the photography staffs. He was also the only faculty member in the department from 1968 until Dave Ozmun joined the faculty in 1987.
“I was all by myself, except for Mac Sisson, the news bureau director,” said Downs.
His responsibilities at Ouachita did not stop him from becoming active other organizations. For 25 years, Downs served as director of the Arkansas High School Press Association. He said that one of his greatest achievements came during his last year as director, in 1995, when he was instrumental in the development and enactment of the Arkansas Student Press Law. The press law, which established a framework of freedom for Arkansas high school newspapers, was only the sixth of its kind in the nation.
Over the years, Downs has served as president of the Arkadelphia Chamber of Commerce and director of the Clark County United Way. He is a deacon in the First Baptist Church of Arkadelphia and teaches Sunday school. He is also a member of the Rotary Club of Arkadelphia and is currently serving his third term as chairman of the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) Commission. “My term expires—if I don’t first—in 2014,” he said.
One of his recent personal accomplishments was a project he began in 2001, when he was inspired to research the names of the Ouachita students and graduates listed on the University’s World War II memorial. “I had passed that memorial many times and never really thought about the names that were there,” said Downs, whose book, The Fighting Tigers, was published in 2004. “It really became a passion for me.” He has since taught a Ouachita honors seminar about World War II and helped with veterans programs sponsored by the Ben M. Elrod Center for Family and Community.
He has been honored with numerous awards for his work as a faculty member and as an adviser for Ouachita student publications, earning a Gold Key Award from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, a Pioneer Award from the Associated Collegiate Press and a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser Award from the National Council of College Publication Advisers. The award he is most proud of, however, is a Lemke Award, named for his college mentor at the University of Arkansas.
In fact, Downs said despite numerous offers to leave Ouachita and follow other pursuits, the only one he ever took seriously was an offer to be chair of the department of journalism at his alma mater. At the time, his first wife Jean was ill, and they decided not to leave Arkadelphia. She died in 1989.
“It was nice to be asked, but I’m glad I decided to stay,” said Downs. “If I hadn’t, I would have missed Vera.”
Downs married Vera Prince in 1990. “We have a great relationship,” he said. “She fills in my blank spaces, and she’s encouraged me in developing a closer walk with the Lord.”
Vera has been his partner, not only in life, but sometimes in work, serving as his copy editor for his weekly Open Forum column in the Daily Siftings Herald, and accompanying him on two around-the-world study tours with students in 1998 and 2001. The tours were conducted in cooperation with Time magazine and were made possible by Dr. J.D. Patterson, an OBU graduate who practices dentistry in Searcy.
“We’ve been able to do some amazing things with not nearly the financial resources that a lot of colleges have,” said Downs, counting his international trips and a 1995 Advertising Federation team championship among those “amazing things.”
Over his 41 years of teaching, Downs has seen the mass communications department change and grow from one faculty member to five, including three of his former students. “We all get along, which can not be said of a lot of journalism programs,” he said. “We’re like family.”
He has also witnessed the introduction of technology to the field, and he was instrumental in moving the department into the digital age. The addition of a television production program in 1987 brought a television studio, control room and editing suites, and the program now uses digital editing equipment. The department is also home to the Speer Digital Design Lab, which houses 18 Macintosh computers and projection equipment, and the student photography lab is completely digital.
Downs, who celebrated his 75th birthday in January, said when people ask him how he stays so young in spirit, “I tell them that it’s because I spend so much of my time around college students. They believe all things are possible, and so do I.”
Downs said that he couldn’t imagine a better working environment than Ouachita. “I hope our students and graduates can find jobs that they would probably want to do even if they were not being paid. That’s the way it’s been for me here.”
He has three sons, Bill, Bob and Ben; and two grandchildren, Harrison and Emily. He also shares two of Vera’s grandsons, Chase and Cash.
When he retires at the end of this semester, Downs said he will leave behind a young and highly talented faculty and not a single regret. “I’m well aware that there are plenty of educators who may have done a better job than I have, but I’ve tried to give it my best. Ouachita provides just the right blend of academic and Christian excellence. I feel that I’ve used my time here well and I’m profoundly grateful to Ouachita.”
by Jennifer Byrd