Tragedies Won't Sink Famous Trout Resort

by Steve Wright  on Monday, Apr. 11, 2005 12:00 am  

LAKEVIEW — After three decades of building a White River resort from the six pink cabins his father left him into a small city that is the headquarters of world-famous Ozark trout fishing, Jim Gaston thought his life mission nearly complete. Although their relationship was at times tumultuous, Gaston's only child, Eric, had been groomed to take over Gaston's White River Resort.

"That was always the way it was going to be," Jim Gaston said. "I never thought of it any other way."

But on Aug. 9, 1995, Jim Gaston's plan went up in smoke. That's when Eric, battling alcoholism at age 31, committed suicide.

"At first, I was just torn apart ... I remember the night before," Gaston said, pointing to a spot in his office. "Eric stood right there. He hugged me. I told him I loved him and he said he loved me."

Gaston barely weathered that storm. Ask anyone close to him — his wife of 19 years, Jill, or his friend for almost 40 years, Richard Davies, who is the director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Ask them if they were concerned that Jim Gaston wouldn't survive his son's suicide, and they'll look you dead in the eyes and say, "Yes."

Jim Gaston was 20 years old, the son of a Flint Hills, Kan., farmer and oil construction worker, when he first drove down the dirt road leading to 20 acres and six cabins his father had purchased on the banks of the White River. At age 24, he took on Gaston's White River Resort as a business. It was sink or swim. His father would die bankrupt, a victim of trying to put groceries on the table for a wife and two sons while working in two of the highest risk businesses of the 20th century.

Over the next 30 years, Gaston earned a reputation as "the godfather" of the White River. When President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Interior James Watt proposed shutting down the nearby Norfork National Fish Hatchery, Jim Gaston's office became the crisis headquarters.

Gaston's office again was the information hub when low dissolved oxygen levels from Bull Shoals Dam killed thousands of trout and threatened the reputation of a world-renowned fishery in 1990. The same thing happened again when trout hatcheries were threatened in the early years of the Clinton administration. All those threats were handled to the benefit of trout fishing.

Critical in those victories was the fact that Jim Gaston always had an eye for the big picture. He eagerly accepted an appointment to the Arkansas Depart-ment of Parks & Tourism Commission in 1973 by Gov. Dale Bumpers. He was often referred to as "the Marlboro man" by Clinton, who as governor continued to reappoint Gaston.

Clinton's nickname for Gaston is apt. A slim six-foot man with a weather-tanned face, Gaston is known for his wardrobe — a long-sleeve cotton shirt with two breast pockets, blue jeans and cowboy boots. He doesn't own a necktie.

That one of those front shirt pockets always held a pack of cigarettes furthered the image. But most of all, Gaston earned that reputation by taking a role as the John Wayne of Arkansas' $4.3 billion tourism industry.

As Davies likes to say, "Gaston, you can get away with saying things that nobody else can get away with saying."

"He's been right so often on so many things that when Gaston speaks, you have to listen," said Davies. "He has always been ahead of the times. Always."

Gaston's Resort today includes 78 cabins, ranging from hotel type accommodations to a 10-bedroom, 10-bathroom, two-story lodge. It's most popular cabins feature full kitchens, two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

The rates are equally diverse, ranging from $87 per night through $1,010 for the River Villa 10-bedroom setup. The rates and amenities are detailed at www.gastons.com.

There's also a restaurant overlooking the White River, an 1,800-SF conference lodge that can accommodate 125 people, a swimming pool and a tennis court.

Gaston's includes almost 400 acres, two miles of which border the White River. The accommodations attract 30,000 guests per year.

Through the Valley

Most of the resort was already in place when Jim Gaston's world turned upside down.

"Some nights I'd be laying in bed and it felt like somebody had beat the hell out of me," Gaston said. "I just ached. I held it in for a long time, trying to be strong for everyone, but I was ruining my life. I almost became a recluse. That was the first time in my life that I'd ever had a battle in front of me there was no way to win. I'm not saying I won every battle in life, but there was no way to win this one."

It took Gaston 18 months to get through his depression. He openly talks about the subjects of suicide and depression today, as is Gaston's style, hoping his experience can be of help to others. Time, counseling and, importantly, medicine, helped revive him.

But Jim Gaston still had a problem to solve. With no son to leave his resort, he began thinking about what to do with it. What would happen if he died? For many years, he has received significant corporate offers to buy his resort. He never considered them because his plan was for the long run. With that plan in question, he spoke to the State Parks Department and the Nature Conservancy about an eventual transfer of ownership.

But as Gaston emerged from depression, he was able to focus not on what he'd lost, but what he had: Eric's two sons, Danny and Clint.

"It finally dawned on me, I've got grandkids," Gaston said. "I look back on that now and ask myself why I didn't think of that immediately."

When those grandsons were 12 and 5, it was hard to think of them taking over a resort that employs at least 70 at all times and sometimes more than 150. But Danny is 22 now and is manager of Gaston's Resort. He knows it well; he's been working there since he was 6 — sweeping floors, selling bait, washing dishes in the restaurant.

And his life has left him mature beyond his years. In November 2002, his mother, Lisa Gaston, was burning brush in her yard when she apparently passed out and fell into the fire. There is no explanation for the accident that left her with fourth-degree burns over 60 percent of her body. She died a few days later.

Danny Gaston, at age 18, was fatherless, motherless and left with the responsibility of raising his younger brother.

"Things happen and they make you who you are," said Danny Gaston, who lost a grandfather in a tractor accident six months after his mother died. "It was a really strange sequence of events."

Getting out of Mountain Home never crossed his mind.

"I don't want any sympathy," Danny said. "There's an expression — strong winds make strong sailors. That's my philosophy. I try to take everything that happens and roll with it."

New Bond

Danny Gaston is the future of Gaston's White River Resort.

"I'm not going to be a clone [of Jim Gaston]," Danny said. "He has set the bar high for me. As different as we are in age, he and I share a similarity in the way we think and react. It's odd. It's not like I've always been following him around."

A week earlier, Jim Gaston had used the same word — clone — when talking about Danny.

"We work together as far as ideas," Jim said. "But I don't want him to feel like he needs to be a clone of me. When he goes to Arkansas tourism meetings, I don't brief him before he goes or debrief him when he comes back."

Jim Gaston expects to spend many more years working 10 to 12 hours a day in his office at Gaston's Resort. His joy for work is now back to the level that built Gaston's Resort into one of the premier trout fishing destinations in the United States. His goal is back in place.

"When you look at the game of business, I've won," Gaston said. "But I've won for a reason very few people would realize. I've won because this is going to stay in the family. It has nothing to do with possessions and nothing to do with the value of White River land."

Danny Gaston shares that goal.

"That's the dream, hand it down to a kid of my own," says Danny, who then with a smile, adds, "If my kids don't want to run it, I'll adopt."

 

 

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