Most of us have a best friend, if we are lucky...Someone who has known you since childhood... I have one, Marcia Hudson...Marcia and I have been through heaven and hell together but the operative word is through... We have made it to the other side...We survived and are happy with ourselves... And most times you have favorite friends, people who don’t know everything but would remain your friend just the same... Stueart Pennington was one of my all time favorite friends...
Stueart owned the most exclusive men’s clothing store in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Oaklawn Sportswear He had the very best from suits to casual wear... a couple of things Stueart hated was Dockers, blue jeans and stupid people. He also had a smaller store in Downtown that I managed for him. I don’t remember never knowing Stueart. He came from an old family here and knew something on almost everyone... If I needed to know who someone was I’d just call Stueart. If you didn’t have anything to do you could sit and talk for hours with him...He used to say that he knew of people who loved Hot Springs as much as he did but didn’t know of anyone except me who loved her more. He was fiercely proud of his only child Erin Pennington Wood. He had a piece of paper on His father’s very old cash register that had his toll free number on it so that Erin could call anytime she wanted...Every time you went to the store he would show it to you.Stueart was married and divorced and married again, and then he found Frances, his wife who loved him till the end.
He wasn’t the life of the party he WAS the party! Everyone I know loved Stueart... Downtown Hot Springs had been run down ever since the speakeasy casinos had been closed down by Governor Rockefeller in 1968..Until then Hot Springs was abuzz with activity.. Gambling was wide open and the police let it be as long as the people who needed to pay, paid up. They bought and wore the finest clothes. Life was good. Stueart graduated Hot Springs High in 1967, went to college and came home to the family business where he was until the day he died. As I said, Hot Springs had gone downhill since then pretty bad. Then the downtown merchants association revived down town and it was lively and the place to be...Stueart was a big part of that renewal. Hot Springs is nestled in a narrow valley only four lanes wide. You can Google it and see how beautiful it really is. Hot steaming water flows down a mountain at 147 degrees.
Stueart moved his business downtown in the 1990’s. After a few years the mountain collapsed and the buildings had to be evacuated...just before Christmas...Stueart survived... When the oil money dried up Stueart survived. Stueart had damn near survived everything until that fateful day on
September 8, 2005. It seems that this carpetbagger had come to town and was going to work magic downtown. He was going to make downtown 5th Avenue in New York...Yea, right. So he made a deal with the man who owns most of the buildings...he would collect the rent and choose the renters...He was a wheeler and dealer…A shiny man, shark skinned suits etc... He lived in a house with the whole downstairs walls of glass so that you could see all of his poison’ snakes...each snake had its separate cages, you could hear them strike at the glass and rattle, the lights were low and it was creepy. He was creepy. Dennis Magee was his name. He had gained control of everything and he had a score to settle. He demanded more money for the deposits on everyone...He even raised one family’s deposit over one thousand percent. They had a Chinese restaurant and Dennis put them out on the street with no place to go and no warning.
He went to Stueart and demanded that he double his deposit and rent. Stueart was furious...It was the beginning of the fall season that led into Christmas. Stueart had been there for about 10 years and he would be there forever along with a beautiful bath shop, a fabulous antique shop and an upscale gift emporium. People couldn’t help but to stop in for a visit...Life was good, minus the Dennis fiasco… We had all stood behind Dennis when his restaurant burned to the ground...Stueart headed up a drive to raise money for Dennis... Some say his mortgage and insurance papers started rubbing together and caught on fire...Who knows? Dennis went back to Stueart and Stueart tried to talk some sense into Dennis...Just wait till the first of the year and he would pay...No Way! He demanded it right then or he would padlock the door... Stueart decided to move to another location down the street...So he did just that...It was right before Labor Day which is a big tourist’s day... On the evening in September 2005, Stueart was carrying boxes into the store and he fell flat on the floor dead... Stueart had died of a massive coronary right then and there. He died in the store that he loved so much. A man on the street came by and saw him so he called an ambulance...Frances, his wife, arrived at the emergency room, then his daughter. They took Stueart to Intensive Care and put him on a ventalator. There was no hope...The doctor told me that his heart just exploded...the only thing keeping him alive were the machines... I stood at the foot of his bed crying, holding his feet in my hands and said goodbye. He had been there for about five days not changing one single bit. I had talked with Stueart about death many years earlier...just a casual conversation. I knew what he wanted ..Frances tried so very hard to not let him die She made a brave decision.
The next day down at the store Frances was in the back...friends were everywhere putting the store together...The way Stueart would have wanted it to be. I went to Frances and we started talking... She asked my opinion of how I thought Stueart really was...It was very grim. Stueart wasn’t there in that body...Sometimes people just have to hear it from the right person. In this case it was me. She decided to ask for one more CT scan to see if there was and glimmer of hope...sadly, there was not. They made the heart wrenching decision to let Stueart go...He had been gone the whole time...they just could not believe it….No one could. He was only fifty six...too young.
They had a beautiful memorial service at the First United Methodist Church which held 500. The sanctuary was packed, standing room only and they were flowing out the doors. Grammy Award winning song writer Randy Goodrum played music and he spoke. He told a story of being in church for a youth meeting when he and Stueart snuck upstairs to play Great Balls of Fire on the pipe organ...full blast...That is the kind of friend Stueart was, Fun...
Stueart LOVED Lake Hamilton... People used to ask him “How can you stand living on the lake in the winter...It is so dreary and depressing” Stueart said “ looking at the lake in winter is like looking at a black and white photo You just have learn to appreciate it"...And he did. In April the next year Frances decided to have another memorial to send Stueart off. I knew what they had in mind beautiful sunset, beautiful music, a few drinks with friends... Stueart would drift off into the sunset...It was April and I knew what the weather and currents would do and it wasn’t pretty. I could imagine Frances sitting there at the the end of the day and there goes Stueart drifting by… or getting stuck in someone’s dock... The day of the service I ordered a tropical urn wreath and had it delivered... I was ill and could not attend…. It was way overcast and the winds were blowing from the west into the bay not away from it. They took a boat out into the middle of the small bay and poured Stueart’s ashes onto the wreath and let it go to drift into the sunset...Frances sent me photos and it was a beautiful ceremony. Life went on...
In late May we put the boat in the lake and I decided to go visit my friend, Marcia. She lives about six miles up the lake from me then you turn west off of the main channel and go a few miles. I was talking on the phone with my friend in Florida, Pattie King...Just chatting my way up the lake when I decided to go up the main channel to the 70 West Bridge where Stueart lived. No reason just had the urge to go up there. And what to my wandering eyes did appear...? Stueart, sitting there hung up at the 70 west bridge! About one hundred feet away from where he was set adrift. It was about three miles out of my way. When I got to the bay I looked around and there was Stueart and his wreath stuck against the bridge embankment...I was floored... I told Pattie King that I had found Stueart...Six weeks after he was set adrift...It was exactly as if he had called and said that his car had broken down or he had had too much to drink, come and get me. I pulled the boat up to the bridge and waded out to pick up the wreath, ashes and all. I told Pattie King what I had found and she was speechless. I hung up. Stueart had been washed up on that spot six weeks earlier and what are the chances that I had found him? He was only about one hundred yards from his house and his house sits directly on the shoreline. I put Stueart on the back seat of the boat and headed off to Marcia’s again...As I was pulling up to Marcia’s dock she looked at the back seat and said “Noo! I can’t believe it where did you find Stueart”? I told her the whole story and she just could not believe it either... But, yes, it was the wreath and Stuart’s ashes... What are the chances that I would find him?
I visited with Marcia for a while and then I told her to fix me a scotch to go... As I was pulling away from the dock the sun was setting over the lake and it was a spectacular sunset. I am not sure that anyone loves Lake Hamilton as much as we do... it was a slow cruise...As I turned into my bay the sun crept lower. When I got home I asked my husband to drive me to the cemetery downtown where the Pennington Estate is located, he did. The sun was going down pretty quickly now and I knew I had to hurry. I gently laid Stueart and the wreath on his mother’s grave and said a prayer and said goodbye to my friend for the last time. During the next few weeks people said that they would spot him going down the lake. Then someone said that they saw him at the dam...I just smiled...His cousin was at a yard sale at Marcia’s and said that she saw him at the cemetery.. Marcia called me and we had a quiet laugh...We knew that Stueart would just love this story...Espaciall since it was about him!