“We lost a good one today,” shared Richard Abernathy in regard to the passing of his father Billy (Bill) Abernathy on Thursday, May 23. The single statement made by Richard has since been echoed throughout the community of Mena, the walls of UA Rich Mountain, and the entire education expanse across the state of Arkansas.
Abernathy, known as Mr. A to some and Mr. Bill to others, devoted more than six decades as an advocate of education and children. The Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators defined Abernathy as one of the “true giants” in education for the State of Arkansas.
Abernathy began his journey of education as a small-town graduate of Oden High School in Montgomery County followed by a Physical Education Degree from Arkansas Tech University and later a Masters degree in Administration from the University of Arkansas.
Abernathy traveled many miles during the early treks of his educational career, from the West coast of California to the Arkansas River Valley in Dardanelle, central Arkansas by way of Conway and Greenbrier and then settling back in the Ouachitas as the Mena Public School Superintendent in 1972. A testament of Abernathy during his occupancy as Superintendent was his love for students and the passion he maintained in a belief of an education system to better oneself no matter what obstacle a student faced. Hours cannot be accounted for during the sixty years Abernathy devoted to the pursuit of gaining a quality education within the state of Arkansas.
Following his first retirement as superintendent, Abernathy began his service of 13 years to Rich Mountain Community College as the college’s second president. During the tenure of Abernathy, development of a community college program began in earnest. After the required number of compliance years, Rich Mountain Community College received full accreditation in 1990, as well as obtaining approval for Waldron as an off-campus site. Under Abernathy’s leadership, the College received five-year reaccreditations in both 1995 and 2000.
Under Mr. Abernathy’s leadership, the College’s enrollment increased to 766 students in 1993. Programs and offerings changed over the years to include computer programming and Telecourses (the precursor to online classes). Additionally, during Mr. Abernathy’s presidency, multiple federal grant program applications netted funding to ensure access to higher education and student success. These grants included attaining a math grant, a Title III Grant, and four TRIO grants to establish programs to serve a targeted population.
Other accomplishments include the renovation of the Maddox Building, the St. John Library expansion, the acquisition of the historic National Guard Armory, and the addition of the walking trails around the college campus. Notably, in 1992, Mr. Abernathy was the board chair for the Association of Two Year Colleges when the organization hired its first director.
“He left an indelible mark on the campus that has lived within our campus vision, culture, and growth. Rural higher education knows no stronger champion and friend than that of Bill Abernathy who dedicated his life’s work to improving the lives of residents of the Ouachita Mountain region and subsequently, the entire state of Arkansas. He leaves behind a legacy of unwavering and relentless advocacy in rural education that will positively impact all generations of our region to come,” Chancellor Dr. Phillip Wilson shared. Wilson continued, “There are still many current employees on campus that he hired, myself included. Mr. ‘A’ has a building on campus named after him. This building will forever carry his name to honor his vision and contributions to this institution and District 22, but more importantly, his memory will forever be etched on the hearts of the countless lives he changed through his advocacy, encouragement, and everyday kindness and humility.”
The kindness and humility that has been spoken of Abernathy went beyond the education realm. Abernathy was also devoted to civic causes and helping the community. Current Mena Lions club president Jeremy Jones recalls the influential role Bill Abernathy had with Lions. “The community service role and projects being taken on by Mena Lions today are largely attributable to the works and efforts of Bill Abernathy,” said Jones. Other Lions remembered Bill Abernathy’s wit and humor as was often display at meetings. Retired UARM instructor and Lion Joe Corcoran also recalled Bill’s wit, his great contributions to rural education and to the community, but also Bill’s role in Corcoran’s professional development. “Bill gave me my first opportunity to work for the college,” said Corcoran, and “I’ll always to be thankful for that.”
Abernathy ran and served as an Arkansas State Representative during the years of 2005-2011 and chaired the House Education Committee, but the commitment did not end there. Abernathy’s dedication to students and education remained constant and steadfast as he served as the Executive Director of the Arkansas Rural Education Association until his 2017 retirement.
After his final retirement, Abernathy spent time his latter days with family in the great outdoors and most that know him, his “beloved” Lake Ouachita. A courageous battle was fought to the end with pancreatic cancer, but in the hearts of so many students, faculty, and administrators, Abernathy is triumphant and will always be remembered as the champion for all educators.