A retired general, a successful businessman, and an all-star professional football player have been selected to receive the 2016 Alumni Awards for Achievement and Merit from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
Brigadier General (ret.) Roger McClellan, former second in command of the Arkansas Army National Guard, David Leech, a successful grocery chain owner, and Clarence Denmark, an all-Canadian Football League wide receiver, will receive the awards during an inaugural dinner for Chancellor Karla Hughes on October 21. Louine Leech, one of UAM’s oldest living graduates, will receive the Continuing the Connection Award for best keeping alive the connection between UAM and Arkansas A&M.
Each of the honorees will be recognized on Friday, October 21 at 6 p.m. in the John F. Gibson University Center. For tickets, contact Christy Pace at (870) 460-1020 or [email protected] before October 12, 2016.
When Roger McClellan graduated from New Edinburg High School in 1973, attending college was not an option, or so he thought. No one in his family had ever gone to college and his father encouraged him to learn a trade.
Paul McClellan worked at Potlatch and gave his son some advice based on his own experiences. “He told me no one ever made any money working for someone else,” Roger says. “He encouraged me to learn a skill that would allow me to be my own boss.”
Roger took his father’s advice and spent the next year learning auto body repair at Pines Vocational Technical School in Pine Bluff before going to work for a body shop in Warren.
At the same time, his long-time girlfriend, Patricia Childers, was working on an office administration degree at UAM. Roger and Patricia grew up a few miles apart in rural Dallas County – Roger in the Macedonia community and Patricia in Mt. Elba. They met when Roger was in the sixth grade and Patricia in the fifth. Four years later they started dating, became high school sweethearts at New Edinburg High and were married in 1976, Patricia’s junior year at UAM.
One of Patricia’s UAM classes was at night. Not wanting his new wife to make the drive from New Edinburg to Monticello by herself, McClellan enrolled in an insurance class and discovered college wasn’t as difficult as he had imagined.
McClellan decided to enroll at UAM full time for the 1978 spring semester but had to take care of some unfinished business first. Roger had considered enlisting in the Army National Guard following high school. He passed the entrance exam and just needed to sign his enlistment papers, but at 17, single and not sure what he wanted to do with his life, McClellan put the military on hold.
When he finally decided to follow through, he had a practical reason. “I decided to join the Guard to support my wife,” he says, smiling at the memory. “It paid $63 a month for two weeks a year and one weekend a month. Since we were paying $50 a month rent, I thought that was a pretty good deal.”
McClellan was a full-time UAM student and a private in the Guard. He was soon promoted to specialist, and was being considered for sergeant but there were no openings. Seeing McClellan’s promise, his superiors encouraged him to consider officer candidate school, launching him on the unlikely road from private to brigadier general.
McClellan was commissioned as a second lieutenant in March 1981 and graduated from UAM two months later with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. McClellan’s college memories reflect his status as a non-traditional student. “I was married, commuting, had a full-time job and weekend drill with the Guard,” he says. “In 1973 I wasn’t mature enough to do well in college. At 21, I was ready. I didn’t view college as an opportunity to party; I viewed it as an opportunity to accomplish something.”
McClellan accepted an offer from International Paper in Bastrop, La., following completion of his master of business administration degree from Louisiana Tech in 1983, beginning a concurrent career as a corporate executive and military officer. McClellan climbed the ranks in both civilian and military life, retiring from International Paper in 2011 as a senior information analyst.
As an officer in the National Guard, McClellan served in a variety of command and staff assignments, including a year as a civil affairs officer in Iraq where he won a Bronze Star for his body of work in Operation Iraqi Freedom II. McClellan worked with tribal leaders, mayors, politicians, schools and hospitals. “I wasn’t kicking in doors,” he says. “I was there to help improve their education system and economy, to help the Iraqi people have a better way of life. We wanted them to know the Americans were there to help. Ninety percent of the people appreciated that we were there.”
McClellan returned from Iraq in 2004, became deputy commander of the 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team headquartered in Little Rock and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. On January 1, 2008, McClellan assumed the duties of Commander, Land Component Command of the Arkansas Army National Guard in North Little Rock.
Now retired and living outside New Edinburg on 40 acres of mostly forest land that has been in his wife’s family since the 1940s, McClellan still carries himself with a military bearing and wants everyone to know he is still working from time to time as a tax consultant. But his first love is the Guard. “I loved the military,” he says. “I loved the adventure, the mission, the commitment and the people I served with.”
Clarence Denmark followed a circuitous path from his home in Jacksonville, Fla., to the Canadian Football League. An athletic wide receiver blessed with size, speed, strength and sure hands, Denmark attracted Division I suitors during his senior year at Robert E. Lee High School. Denmark earned all-conference honors while catching passes, returning kicks and playing defensive back, but his academics meant junior college.
Denmark played two seasons at Mississippi Delta JC, earning second team All-State honors in 2005 and signed with Division I Troy University as a late addition to the Trojans’ 2006 recruiting class. Denmark went to Troy for a semester before transferring to UAM, much to the delight of the Boll Weevil coaching staff.
Denmark made an immediate impact, catching 37 passes for 599 yards, 3 touchdowns and an average of 16.2 yards per catch. He topped those marks as a senior in 2007 with 54 catches for 987 yards and a whopping 18.2 yards per reception.
Those numbers caught the eye of professional scouts from both the CFL and the National Football League. Denmark signed as an undrafted free agent with his hometown Jacksonville Jaguars and spent two years on the practice squad before being released.
In 2011, he was signed by the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a match, as it turns out, made in football heaven. Playing on the CFL’s larger field with passing on almost every down, Denmark exploded onto the scene with 65 receptions for 818 yards and five touchdowns.
In 2012, he made 55 receptions for 649 yards and added 64 receptions for 900 yards in 2013. Denmark enjoyed his best season in 2014 with 65 receptions for 1,080 yards, 3 touchdowns and selection to the West squad of the CFL All-Star Game. Now nine games into his sixth season in the CFL, Denmark has accumulated 325 receptions for 4,482 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Denmark knew little about the CFL and admits to a little culture shock with the move north of the border. “It was my first time out of the country,” he says. “I had to get a passport. And the weather is really different. We get snow in September. I didn’t know much about the league when I first came up here, and I was surprised by the quality of play.”
Fields in the CFL are 10 yards longer and 15 yards wider than those in the U.S., with end zones 20 yards deep and goal posts on the goal line. Each team receives three downs, not four, and the play clock is 20 seconds. “It’s definitely a faster, more wide open game,” he says. “You have to be good in the passing game. The larger field is a plus because it gives you more room to move around.”
David Leech learned the value of a dollar at an early age. Leech started making money about the time he removed the training wheels from his bicycle. By 12 years old, he had $3,200 in his savings account, accumulated through an assortment of odd jobs. By the time he finished college at the University of Arkansas at Monticello in 1972, he had more than $40,000 in the bank, which he used to finance the purchase of a grocery store in McGehee, beginning a long and lucrative career in the retail grocery business.
“I learned early on that it’s not how much money you make, but how much you keep and how you let the capital work that matters,” he says.
Leech is retired now, living next to a golf course in Stuttgart less than a block from his 99-year-old mother, Louine. The family’s history dates to the earliest days of UAM when it was known as the Fourth District Agricultural School. Louine’s mother, Hattie Bell Moseley Selman, graduated from UAM in 1912 while it was still a high school. Her uncle, Marvin Bankston, was teaching agriculture at what was then Arkansas A&M College when Louine Selman enrolled for classes in 1934. Bankston became president of A&M in 1938, the year Louine graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. Today, a residence hall bears her uncle’s name.
David Leech’s wife, Jimmie Jo, is the granddaughter of long-time Arkansas A&M Dean of Students James H. Hutchinson. The couple’s son, Charles Robert, graduated from UAM in 2003.
“When you look at the history our family has with Arkansas A&M and UAM, these awards mean so much to both of us,” says David. “UAM is a special place.”
The country was in the throes of the Great Depression when Louine began her freshman year at Arkansas A&M. Tuition was $12.50 a semester, a gallon of gas was 15 cents and most students had to work on campus to make ends meet. Louine worked in the cafeteria and later in the business office while living in a brand-new girls’ dormitory named for long-time A&M President Frank Horsfall, who resigned Louine’s freshman year. Louine knew Horsfall (“He was very strict. He believed if a boy kissed a girl, they were going to have a baby the next day.”) as well as Stewart Ferguson, the controversial coach of the Wandering Weevil football team. “I liked Ferguson,” she remembers. “He was very personable.”
Louine attended Chillicothe Business College in Missouri following graduation from A&M, earning a business degree in 1939. She met her future husband, Bob, a star football player at the University of Missouri, at a USO dance in Little Rock when he drew her name out of a box. A few days later, he asked a friend for her telephone number, the couple began dating and were married on March 22, 1941.
Bob and Louine owned and operated Sunflower Grocery Stores in Monticello, Dermott and Hamburg for 40 years and celebrated 74 years of marriage last March before Bob’s death on July 29, 2016.
David Leech combined a relentless work ethic and a nose for business to become an entrepreneur at an early age. In the ninth grade, he negotiated a deal with Frank Jackson, publisher of the Advance Monticellonian, to handle all the newspapers vending machines around town. He purchased the vending machines himself from his savings and placed them on every street corner in town, receiving a cut for every newspaper sold.
As a student at UAM, Leech was out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to work as a janitor cleaning the local USDA office before heading to class. When class was over, he sold “upgraded” textbooks to students. “When I say upgraded, I mean I went through them and highlighted the important information, particularly information that I knew had been on tests,” he says. “The bookstore wouldn’t touch those books, but the students loved them.”
With a freshly minted business degree from UAM, Leech opened his first Sunflower-Mayflower Food Store in McGehee on April 1, 1973. He later added stores in Dermott, Monticello, Star City, Cherokee Village, Carlisle, Stuttgart and Searcy. He retired from the grocery business in 2015 and spends much of his time heavily involved in civic activities in Stuttgart.
He credits his success to his father. “I got my work ethic from my Dad,” he says. “I’ve always liked to work. Still do.”