Searcy History Was Birthday Gift to America

Searcy, Arkansas: A Frontier Town Grows Up With America is generally recognized as the single most significant book on Searcy history. This is the story of how it was achieved in only a year by a transplanted West Virginian, Dr. Raymond Lee Muncy. The following is reprinted with permission from Making History: Ray Muncy In His Time by Eloise Muncy with John Williams.      

During his first decade in Searcy, Ray had not been in an ivory tower. He made friends in the community as a member of the Kiwanis Club, as a speaker at banquets and 4th of July celebrations, and as a concerned citizen. Therefore it came as no surprise when he was asked to write a bicentennial history of Searcy.

The idea for a history dated from the spring of 1975 in a Searcy Library Board meeting. The Bicentennial Committee soon got behind the notion, and Mayor Leslie Carmichael and the city council agreed to fund half the project. The other money came from government grants and private donations. Lee Biggs, chairman of the Bicentennial Committee, wanted a competent writer for the history, which had to be completed in one year to be ready for bicentennial celebrations.             Biggs no doubt knew of Ray’s work in history, but it was Mayor Carmichael who really knew him personally. The two were in Kiwanis together, and the mayor had called upon Ray to deliver talks to various civic groups. In short, Ray knew the right people. His price was also right. Ray wrote the history gratis. He spent a year of his life doing the research – while remaining a full-time teacher – but felt he was fulfilling a civic responsibility as well as a Christian one.

 Ray set up headquarters in the Arkansas Room of the Searcy library, where he taped note cards to one of the walls to create a chronological chart of the city’s history. As a non-native, he depended heavily on newspaper clippings, donated photographs, and personal stories. In this sense the project was truly a community effort. Almost two dozen volunteers helped research and file material. If Ray ever felt pressure, I saw no evidence of it. He did work nights frequently, and the time constraints forced him to write hurriedly. He knew going in that it would be difficult to polish his prose, and the book reads more like a compilation of events and people than a synthesis and interpretation of them. Still, he managed to evoke a distinctive spirit of the “frontier town that grew up with America,” as his subtitle put it.

 When the book became available on July 4, 1976, Searcians celebrated with a ceremony in Spring Park, followed by a book signing for hundreds of people. Some civics teachers used the book in their classes. Perrin Jones, editor of the Daily Citizen and one of Ray’s helpers on the project who became a friend, wrote a glowing review of it. Others offered praise too, and a year later, the National Association of State and Local Histories presented the book with a National Award of Merit. The most meaningful award came from the Searcy Optimist Club, which in 1976 named Ray the town’s Citizen of the Year. It was quite an honor for a West Virginian who had lived in Arkansas for only twelve years.

I suppose Ray became something of a celebrity at the time, as much as anyone can be in a small town without winning a state championship or killing somebody. School officials at the nearby town of Bald Knob may have coveted the presence of author and Citizen-of-the-Year Ray Muncy when they asked him to judge a beauty contest sometime in the late 1970s. Unable to refuse but uncomfortable with the obligation, Ray talked me and Gary Elliott (Harding English department) and Gary’s wife, Cheryl, into joining him as judges. We drove together to the school and sat in front of a stage where junior high and high school girls paraded by in formals. As we eliminated candidates during the pageant, the crowd started showing some disapproval of our choices. In the backs of our minds was the reputation of the town, which at the time, fairly or not, was known as a rough place. A few years earlier, shortly after we had moved to the area, [our daughter] Kandy said a prayer in which she included a petition for “our boys fighting in Bald Knob.” What she had meant to say was “our boys fighting in Vietnam,” but in her child’s mind the propaganda about Bald Knob got mixed in with what she knew about the war.

Ray and Gary were not quite that credulous, but the catcalls and occasional booing made them nervous. After declaring winners, we retreated to our car and headed for Searcy, not wanting to wait for a chance to test our impression of the crowd’s dissatisfaction. On the way back the two men, sitting in the front seat, became convinced that a car was following us. “Why did you vote for that one girl?” Gary asked. “She was the ugliest one on stage!” Ray answered, “She looked like she could make good cornbread.” Cheryl and I laughed ourselves silly as the guys imagined scenarios of violence at the hands of Bald Knob ruffians. The car followed us into Searcy, down Race, onto Moore and all the way to Hayes – our street – causing true anxiety to mingle with the joking. But the car did not turn behind us at Hayes, and soon we were safe within our homes in Sunnyhill, appreciating the confines of Searcy and wondering how we ever let Ray talk us into judging a beauty contest in the first place.

The year 1976 was a good one for Ray. In addition to finishing the book and earning Citizen of the Year recognition, he was named a Distinguished Teacher for the second time. In many ways Ray was at the pinnacle of his career, and his happiness showed.

Raymond Muncy died January 6, 1994. We thank his widow Eloise, a member of the White County Historical Society, for approval to use this copyrighted material. To order Searcy, Arkansas: A Frontier Town Grows Up With America, send a check for $18 to Searcy Arts Council, 300 East Race, Searcy, AR 72143. To order Making History, send a check for $22.95 to Harding Bookstore, HU Box 12266, Searcy, AR 72149-0001.