It’s tough to peak when you’re 5 years old, Sonny Rhodes always said.
He was just that age when he sang a few lines of “Hound Dog” to an Army-bound Elvis Presley, an indelible moment in Rhodes’ life. Now he’s matched it.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor won the 2020 Arkansas Press Association Journalism Educator of the Year award last month.
An associate professor in the university’s School of Mass Communication, he sized it up: “As for comparing this award with Elvis … I would have to say that with this award my life has hit another peak!”
In March 1958, he found himself on Elvis’ knee thanks to a quick-thinking father and the U.S. military, which put Presley on the bus as a draftee. The meeting took place at Roy “Cuz” Fisher’s Steakhouse in North Little Rock.
“My dad was the Greyhound bus driver who drove Elvis and his fellow Army inductees from Memphis to Fort Chaffee,” Rhodes explained, saying his father, Carlton M. Rhodes Sr., found a West Memphis pay phone and called home to Watson Chapel to alert his mother, Gwen, about the planned stop at Fisher’s.
“My mother put me in the car, dropped off my little brother with my grandparents, grabbed her teenage sister, Dorothy [Allison], and headed up Highway 65.”
“Hound Dog” was Rhodes’ favorite song, so naturally when they got to Fisher’s, which was packed, his mom led him through the throng and put him on the 23-year-old superstar’s knee. “I sang a line or two but quickly was overcome with timidity, so Elvis kindly put me back on my feet,” Rhodes said. “Oddly, I never knew that encounter was ever documented,” but years later a friend ran across a report in the old Arkansas Gazette about it. The story, by Ray Moseley, who went on to become a celebrated foreign correspondent and author, mentions Rhodes as the boy who sang to the king.
“My friend laughed so loud he was shushed by a librarian,” Rhodes recalled. “But he made me a printout, so I have the documentation.”
The Press Association award honors a career Rhodes shifted to after a quarter-century of reporting and editing for the Pine Bluff Commercial, the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, and the Gazette and Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock.
“Having been a reporter and editor for a long time gives me some credit with the students,” Rhodes said.
In 1990, when Rhodes was editing for the Democrat, he applied to teach a night course in journalism, never thinking of being more than an adjunct.
His boss, Democrat Editor John Robert Starr, surprised him by giving him a nine-month leave of absence, and he “fell in love with teaching.” Nine years later, a full-time position opened up at UA-Little Rock. A graduate of Watson Chapel High and the University of Central Arkansas, Rhodes lives in North Little Rock with his wife, Julie. His master’s degree in journalism is from Ole Miss.
He delighted in two summer internships with his hometown paper, the Commercial. “That was quite the heady experience for a college kid, taking coffee breaks with Paul Greenberg, who had won a Pulitzer Prize, and John Henry, who would later become managing editor of Arkansas Business,” Rhodes said.
His greatest mentor, he said, was Dean Duncan, the UCA journalism sage who won the same award in 1986, to be followed by other reporters-turned-teachers like Ernie Deane, Bob Douglas, Roy Reed, Ernie Dumas and Roy Ockert.
“Dean Duncan suggested I work toward a teaching degree to have something to fall back on in case my career in journalism didn’t work out,” Rhodes said. “I’ve been blessed to have had careers in both of those worlds.”
Another Professor Winds Down
Another UA-Little Rock professor with a hefty journalism resume, Amy Oliver Barnes of the public relations faculty, is winding down her teaching career, she tells Arkansas Business.
She’s in her last full-time semester but said she plans to keep teaching one course a semester “with emeritus status.”
Barnes, who’s been threatening retirement for a while, started as a graduate assistant in the Office of Communications in 1994, seeking a master’s degree after years as a Little Rock TV news reporter and anchor. She eventually got a Ph.D.
“I became executive director [of communications] in 1997 and moved to faculty in 2006,” said Barnes, whose husband is veteran journalist Steve Barnes of Arkansas PBS. “Bottom line: I’m ready to slow down just a bit,” she said.