Garrick Feldman, Resilient Jacksonville Publisher, Dies at 73

Garrick Feldman, who held his Holocaust survivor mother’s hand while crossing frontiers to escape communism as a boy and went on to success as an Arkansas newspaper publisher and print operator, died Sunday, Dec. 5.

He was 73 and lived in Jacksonville, where he founded his paper, The Leader, in 1987. Under his leadership and with help from his wife Eileen Feldman and son Jonathan Feldman, the twice-a-week paper has covered north Pulaski County and Lonoke and White counties ever since, focusing on city councils, schools, sports, businesses and people in Jacksonville, Sherwood, Cabot, Ward, Lonoke, Austin and Beebe.

It expanded into North Little Rock after the demise of the North Little Rock Times in 2018, and was aiming for a readership of 20,000.

At Feldman’s death, Jonathan was editor of The Leader, Eileen its managing editor.

Feldman’s death was noted Monday by Griffin Leggett Healey & Roth Funeral Home on its website, but word had already begun to spread among news industry colleagues and acquaintances.

"Garrick was the genuine article,” said Arkansas Business Assistant Online Editor Sarah Campbell-Miller, who was a reporter for The Leader from 2011 to 2016. “He loved and believed in community journalism and its ability to make a difference.”

Born Aug. 30, 1948, in present-day Hungary, Garrick Feldman would never have had a chance to find his niche in journalism if his mother, Ilona, a Hungarian Jew, hadn’t survived as a teenage slave laborer in Auschwitz during World War II. Feldman’s mother and widowed grandmother, Ida, got off a Nazi transport train after deportation hungry and dazed. “My mother was separated from my grandmother, who was immediately sent to the gas chamber, along with all the elderly, mothers and their children and the sick,” Feldman wrote years later. “My father, Ferenc, was also in forced labor battalions but was not sent to Auschwitz. His parents, brothers and sisters perished there.”

After liberation by Allied soldiers, including some black American GIs who wept at what they saw, Ferenc and Ilona Feldman were married in 1947. Three of Garrick Feldman’s grandparents died in Holocaust camps, and he watched his baby brother being carried by his father as little Garrick held his mom’s hand on a nightlong walk across the Hungarian-Austrian border ahead of the advancing Soviet army in 1956.

Having barely survived Nazi and communist annihilation, the little family made its way to America, where Ferenc and Ilona lived long lives and Feldman’s brother, Steve, became a scholar at the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

His early experiences left him eager to tell true stories, even excruciating ones. “Garrick Feldman was one of the best interviewers I’ve ever seen,” said Campbell-Miller, who also described him as a perfectionist. “I will always be grateful for everything I learned working for him and for his giving a fresh-out-of-college journalist a chance to learn the ropes and to excel."

Feldman was feisty and willing to mix it up a bit on the editorial page. Rick Kron, who wrote for Feldman for 30 years and still contributes stories as a sideline while teaching elementary school in Sherwood, told Arkansas Business Feldman hired him for one reason only. "Because John Robert Starr had fired me from the Arkansas Democrat," Kron said Tuesday afternoon. Feldman, he said, had a tit-for-tat with the notorious editor of the Democrat, who didn't mind using his regular column in the statewide paper as a battering ram.

"It was David and Goliath, and Garrick was David," Kron said, but Feldman never felt outgunned. In fact, like David, "I feel like we won in the long run," Kron said.

As an immigrant and longtime newspaperman, Feldman was a powerful advocate for a free press and was deeply troubled by the anti-immigrant, anti-press tone of the Trump administration, as well as the former president’s good-people-on-both-sides response to the 2017 deadly neo-Nazi and white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Nazi and Confederate flags flew amid chants of “Blood and Soil,” a slogan of Hitlerism, and “Jews will not replace us.”

“That’s not the America that welcomed us,” Feldman told Arkansas Business in 2018. He described The Leader as “a family-owned, locally operated newspaper,” and he put that language in its masthead.

Former employees expected Jonathan and Eileen Feldman to continue overseeing The Leader’s staff of about a dozen. Leader Publishing, a sister business, also provides commercial printing to customers across the state. Requests for comment from the Feldmans weren’t immediately returned, and many family and friends were attending a graveside service Tuesday morning at Jewish Oakland Cemetery in Little Rock.

Arkansas Press Association Executive Director Ashley Wimberley, who was traveling when news of Feldman's death spread on Tuesday, offered this tribute on Wednesday: "Garrick Feldman was a true community journalist. He used his voice as a publisher and editor to bring news and issues to light that might otherwise have been overlooked and the influence of his publication to help make his community a better place. He will be greatly missed in the Arkansas newspaper industry. "

At Feldman’s death, The Leader was the biggest general-interest paper, outside the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, left standing in central Arkansas. “I want to fill that void,” Feldman said as the internet took its toll on local newspapers across the country, forcing hundreds to close.

“Folks deserve a good newspaper, and I think there’s a market for it,” Feldman said. “This has been my goal for 30 years, to cover the whole area north of the river.”