The 50th anniversary year’s mule ride and walk to Pine Bluff

Dr. James F. Willis, SAU Historian

Dr. James F. Willis, SAU Historian

Cheers of encouragement from a special pep rally rang out in the early morning as 12 young men and two mascot mules from Southern State College left campus for Pine Bluff on February 25, 1959. Tom Walters, student body president, and Gene McDonald, vice president, planned to ride Optimaggie and Adolphus all the way, like the original Mule Riders a half-century earlier were thought to have traveled to games. Once out of sight, the two riders dismounted. They decided it was better to walk the 108 miles to Pine Bluff with fellow students than to go another mile astride the thin backs of uncooperative Sicilian mules (burros). Thereafter, they rode only when passing through towns in order to draw attention to their cause.

They walked to boost enthusiasm for the Mulerider basketball team and to celebrate SSC’s 50th anniversary year. Hopes were high that SSC would win the upcoming National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics regional playoffs at Pine Bluff, just as the victorious Mulerider team had in 1957, to qualify for the national tournament.

Students and local citizens avidly followed the young men’s progress on the way to the tournament. As the hikers came to each town on Highway 79, they made calls from pay telephone booths to Magnolia radio station KVMA. Station employee and recent SSC graduate Norman Huneycutt had persuaded Murphy’s jewelry store to sponsor these on-air reports and to provide a Bulova watch for Optimaggie’s leg. Each report ended with a spoof of a popular Timex watch ad:  “The mule is kicking, but the watch is still ticking.”

Walking soon took its toll. Fatigue, aching arches, pulled muscles, and blisters thinned the group day-by-day. Head football coach Auburn Smith came to treat foot sores, and Earl Miller, then in the early years of his half-century of ferrying SSC athletes and students, brought feed for the mules and water for animals and students. At day’s end, Earl Miller loaded the mules in a trailer for a trip back to campus, returning them to the trail the next morning

SSC administrators feared the mascots would be “mulenapped” (abducted) by students of archrival Arkansas A&M seeking to spoil school spirit. Over the years several opponents had taken SSC’s mules on the eve of major athletic contests. In the initial matchup at Pine Bluff, the Muleriders were scheduled to play the Boll Weevils of Monticello, whose students had carried out the first mule snatch in 1950.

At night, the tired SSC footsloggers found lodging and food wherever they could, the first night with Tom Walters’s parents, the second bedded down at the Thornton gymnasium. On the third day, as they passed through Fordyce, local businessman Pete Mitchell, who knew W. Derrell Rogers, asked the walkers about plans for the night. Learning the fellows intended to sleep in the woods, Mitchell invited them to his Rison home. His wife cooked generous dinner portions and a huge breakfast the next morning to feed the eight hungry undergraduates. The next day, Saturday, after trotting part-way in a morning rain shower, seven survivors of the 12 students who began the trip made it to Pine Bluff. The mules did, too, reluctantly.

A huge crowd of supporters cheered and applauded their arrival at the city limits and surrounded them on the last mile to McFadden gymnasium. There, Huneycutt retrieved Murphy’s watch, which remains today, still ticking, a prize possession. El Dorado television station Channel 10 had filmed the walkers on one day of the journey, and front-page stories in several newspapers, including photos in the Pine Bluff Commercial, had spread news of their venture. Pine Bluff’s mayor, Offie Lites, greeted them with an official proclamation designating “all who trekked” honorary citizens of his city. Afterward, the young men decided that now not only could SSC boast about the unique name Muleriders – they joked that Optimaggie and Adolphus were the world’s only mules with a claim to citizenship, even if only at Pine Bluff.

Hundreds of SSC and Magnolia fans roared with joy each night as Coach Delwin Ross’s Mulerider basketball players fought their way to a place in the NAIA regional championship game. In the thrilling opening game, with only seconds left, the Muleriders were behind by one point until Frank Dolan’s fantastic 12-foot hook shot from the baseline beat the Boll Weevils. Other star players, including Steve Sheiron and Calvin Neal, poured in points and snatched rebounds to easily overcome Harding College in the second game. But the Muleriders lost in the title contest to the season’s undefeated Arkansas State Teacher’s College team and its star player, Monroe Ingram, later a longtime Mulerider basketball coach.

That disappointment, however, could not erase the enthusiasm generated by the great walk to Pine Bluff. That remarkable feat, unmatched during the school’s first century, was a special event in SSC’s golden anniversary year, just as five decades later, the 2009 Great Southern Arkansas Mule Ride to McNeil graced the school’s centennial year.

Special thanks are due to Thomas L. Walters, Jr. who recently gathered memories from nine of the twelve walkers; to Dr. Norman Huneycutt who recalled the story of the watch; and to W. Derrell Rogers who first brought the walk to attention.

Dr. Willis continues to record memories of alumni for the SAU Archives.

Alumni are urged to contact him at 870-235-4223 or jfwillis@saumag.edu

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