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Hardy Alton “Spider” Rowland was a flamboyant newspaperman whose political columns in the Arkansas Gazette in the 1940s attracted a huge following and were widely quoted around the country. Rowland was a hard-drinking, wisecracking, brawling man-about-town whose cigar and black fedora cocked on the back of his head made him familiar on the sidewalks and in bars. Southern Politics, the 1949 classic political science anthology about politics in Southern states, invoked Rowland’s metaphors to illustrate the peculiar nature of Arkansas elections.
Spider Rowland was born on July 14, 1907, in a log cabin near Hardy (Sharp County), the son of Fountain Edgar Rowland and Mary Rowland. He was the second-oldest of five children. When he was a boy, the family moved to De Queen (Sevier County), where his father became a railroad section foreman and then operator of a bus line between De Queen and Broken Bow, Oklahoma. In 1945, as a Gazette writer, he recalled that his first job had been delivering the Gazette in De Queen for twenty-five cents a day.
His mother died when he was sixteen, and his father turned to alcohol and abandoned the family. Rowland took to the road, traveling to forty-eight states, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba and supporting himself by gambling and taking occasional odd jobs. He won $9,000 playing poker in Fort Worth, Texas, which paid for his early travels. He later claimed to have escaped one job through a hail of bullets when federal revenue agents raided the whisky still where he was working in Fouke (Miller County). In Fouke, he met and married Elsie Easley, and they had one son. She divorced him because, as Rowland later wrote, “my wife expected too much of me, and she finally got it.” He moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County), where he opened a nightclub; he also published a horseracing tip-sheet in Hot Springs (Garland County).
Rowland was in Rockland, Maine, in the summer of 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill met secretly on a ship off the coast of Newfoundland to negotiate the Atlantic Charter, which established the two countries’ goals for the postwar world. Rowland was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, when Roosevelt stopped there on his way back to Washington DC. At his own expense, Rowland telegraphed a humorous account of the scene to the Gazette. The Gazette published the story, and Rowland began to mail in columns as he traveled around the country. The paper printed them and got such a favorable response that when Rowland moved to North Little Rock (Pulaski County), it paid him to write a weekly column, originally titled “The Weary Go-round” and later changed to just “Spider Rowland.”
Rowland’s boisterous behavior outside the newsroom became part of his legend. He was slightly built, 5'7" tall and 140 pounds, but he talked brashly and always sported a big cigar. A nightclub operator east of North Little Rock shot Rowland four times at 4:00 a.m. in December 1941 after Rowland, who had been singing and cracking jokes, poured a glass of wine on his head. The newspaper account of the shooting mentioned injuries that he had suffered in two other recent fracases.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Rowland joined the Army Transport Command, where his ribald accounts of life in the convoys and with the Seabees were widely reprinted. He continued to write columns for the Gazette and returned to the Gazette full time after his duty ended.
In 1945, Rowland published a picaresque little book called Burp! The cover described the author as an “international authority on barroom etiquette.”
After World War II, Rowland’s columns became decidedly more political, colorful, and influential. They were published six days a week from 1946 through 1948. He championed the veterans’ reform movement called the GI Revolt, led by Sidney S. McMath. Rowland announced that he was running for governor in 1948 by sending up helium-filled balloons with straw ballots attached. But he did not run, and McMath credited Rowland with helping him decide to run for governor and with influencing his election.
Rowland rarely penned a sentence without at least one metaphor. An example is this description of the political alliance of old enemies Carl Bailey and Homer Adkins in the 1948 race: “You might say the Bailey-Adkins amalgamation was simply a shotgun wedding or a case of any old port in a storm. Neither Carl nor Homer is responsible for the situation; it just slipped up on them like long-handle underwear.”
Rowland was the national master of an art form called editorial paragraphs, epigrams of one or two sentences that newspapers used to fill the space at the end of their editorial columns. Rowland’s prolific paragraphs in the Gazette were widely reprinted by newspapers. Two noteworthy examples are: “When Georgia’s chickens come home to roost you can hear the Klux” and “No one knows exactly what the Russians want until they already have it.”
Rowland enjoyed an arrangement by which the paper would publish his articles without a change or not at all. The paper observed it with one exception. It omitted the last two sentences of an article about a professional football game involving Bob Waterfield, the quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams, and his wife, the statuesque film star Jane Russell. “When Bob Waterfield was knocked out,” Rowland wrote, “it frightened Jane Russell so that she fainted. Four men carried her out of the stadium, two abreast.”
Rowland died on February 10, 1958. He is buried at Redmen Cemetery in De Queen.
For additional information:Hardy Spider Rowland Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Interviews with Bob Douglas, Ken Parker, Orville Henry, and Margaret Ross. Arkansas Gazette Project. David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas. Online at http://pryorcenter.uark.edu/project.php?projectFolder=Arkansas Gazette&thisProject=2&projectdisplayName=Arkansas Gazette Project (accessed December 9, 2016).
Interview with Sid McMath, Arkansas Governors Project. David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas. Online at http://pryorcenter.uark.edu/project.php?projectFolder=Arkansas Governors&thisProject=3&projectdisplayName=Arkansas Governors Project (accessed December 9, 2016).
Key, V. O., Jr. Southern Politics. New York: Vintage Books, 1949.
McMath, Sidney Sanders. Promises Kept, a Memoir. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.
Rowland, Hardy “Spider.” Burp! North Little Rock, AR: Capitol Publishing Co., 1945.
“‘Spider’ Rowland Dies; Gazette Former Columnist.” Arkansas Gazette. February 11, 1958, p. 8B.
Ernest DumasLittle Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 2/15/2017
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