Before finishing his first short sentence, "This is a real honor," Dr. Clifton Roaf’s voice faltered, then stopped — it was nearly impossible for anyone in the Chancellor’s Benefit for the Arts audience to miss his heart-felt emotion.

Before finishing his first short sentence, "This is a real honor," Dr. Clifton Roaf’s voice faltered, then stopped — it was nearly impossible for anyone in the Chancellor’s Benefit for the Arts audience to miss his heart-felt emotion.

He continued, "I come from very humble beginnings." In truth, he was the seventh of nine children, growing up in a four-room shack. The family didn’t even own a kitchen table and higher education wasn’t a sunbeam that shined on his future horizon.

"I never knew if I would get to college," he confessed. However, his AM&N College-educated educators at Merrill High School changed all that, teaching him much more than his ABCs. He said, "My teachers left on indelible imprint on my life."

In 1972, AM&N became the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB).

After high school, Roaf left his hometown of Pine Bluff to attend Michigan State University, then earned a degree from Howard University College of Dentistry. He returned, and eventually established the Roaf and Caudle Dental Clinic on Linden Street. As importantly, he was elected to a number of local offices and served tirelessly as a politician. As a private citizen, he sat on numerous local and state boards and committees.

Roaf and four others were recently honored for their contributions at the 27th annual fundraiser and Silent Art Auction, held at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.

Dubbed "The Golden Era of Excellence," benefit organizers filled about 340 seats, with the black-tie event starting at 6 p.m. with a reception and auction, followed by a three-course dinner served at 7:15.

UAPB’s 25-piece Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Darryl Evans provided live music. Ensemble singer, Phyllissa Dunk, performed Stevie Wonder’s "Sir Duke," and the UAPB dance troop performed two dances.

Benefit chairwoman Margaret Martin-Hall said she was thrilled and felt the larger-than-usual turnout was due, in part, "to growing community support for the university and the people we are honoring this evening."

She also felt many people were there to welcome the university’s new chancellor, Laurence B. Alexander.

The Benefit for the Arts was started in 1987 as a way to raise funds to support a variety of art-related activities and programs such as art exhibits, theatrical production, concerts, scholarships, and performance tours for the university’s choir, bands and theater groups. A portion of the money raised also goes to the university’s Museum and Cultural Center.

Recognizing four more

Alexander said in his greeting, "We are honoring individuals who by their selfless acts and gifts to mankind embody a golden standard of generosity."

Besides Roaf, the evening’s other honorees included avid UAPB supporters and alumnus Samuel Staples and his wife and alumnae, Zelma Staples; Simmons First National Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Officer George A. Makris Jr.; and Little Rock civil rights attorney, John W. Walker.

Both AM&N College graduates, Samuel and Zelma Staples were selected for the honor because their continued school spirit as unwavering supporters. He served as National UAPB Alumni president, twice, and UAPB/AM&N Southern California Alumni Chapter president. Zelma Staples worked hand-in-hand with her husband and she is a National Alumni Association platinum life member.

Tisha Arnold, the evening’s mistress of ceremonies and the university’s project specialist in the office of Planning, Institutional Research and Public Information, said, "The Staples have dedicated much of their endless creativity, energy and financial resources to support their beloved alma mater … We thank the Staples for their continual love and support … for showing the way."

While not a UAPB graduate, "In his many leadership capacities, he [Makris] has continued to be a strong advocate and supporter of the university."

As a young man, Makris took art classes at UAPB.

Formerly M.K. Distributors Inc. president, Makris has worked through many organizations to revitalize and develop the community’s economic engine. He has sat on the Board of Visitors at UAPB, and on the board of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ College of Medicine.

Walker got his start at AM&N College, graduating in 1958, before earning a master’s degree from New York University and a law degree from Yale University.

With an unyielding and uncompromising emphasis on civil rights, "Walker’s work has wrought many changes, causing him to be honored and hated at the same time by public officials, corporate leaders and members of the legal profession," Arnold said.

He has been honored by the National Bar Association, the American Trial Lawyer Association, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In 2004, he was named Southern Trial Lawyer of the Year, and in 2010, he was elected as an Arkansas representative D-34.

Liz Strickland was also given a Special Recognition award because she probably touched as many young lives as anyone on the UAPB campus. Strickland was a 1972 AM&N business education graduate and worked in the UAPB’s chancellor’s office for 38 years. In addition to the award, she was given a coveted place at the honorees’ table for her service.

Arnold said Strickland was selected for her decades of "devotion" to the chancellor’s office, and that "she has a great track record."

Strickland said before the ceremony portion of the evening began, "I had no earthly idea that I was being honored. It’s great."

Courtney Strickland, Strickland’s daughter and a UAPB graduate, was thrilled with her mother’s recognition. "I’m so proud of her," she said that evening.

Kittilea "Kitti" Jackson, UAPB University Museum & Cultural Center research assistant and benefit organizer, said the individuals were "honored for their outstanding contributions to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff."

Working behind the scenes that evening, Margaret Hall said as she helped honorees to the stage, "We have so many outstanding graduates."

Reaching forward

The evening wasn’t all about looking back, in large part it was about celebrating the successes of the university, all its graduates, as well helping the next generation find its footing, whether through encouraging words or financial contributions.

Current UAPB student Frank Dorsey II said already his mission was to continue the circle of the Pride (the university’s mascot).

He and Gerikia Park, his date for the evening, said they were there to mix and mingle, as well, Dorsey said, "We’re here to honor those who have given before us … But as students, we need to get in the habit of giving now."

Like so many others in the room, supporting the university is a great point of pride.

For folks like Libra Roulha and Cheryl Townsend, both employed at UAPB, and Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office deputies Jeremy Alexander, Joey Coleman and Patrick Bass and their Sgt. Mark Ryles, it was just another night at the office.

But more than just that, Ryles said, "It’s a good assignment that we were looking forward to."

Townsend said, "It’s an opportunity for the community to come together and celebrate its accomplishments."

Trudy Redus and her friends Gwen Terry and Georgette Wiley, UAPB alumnae, all nodded in agreement when Wiley said, "It bonds the community together."

Redus added, "We enjoy seeing the artists and their work."

Pine Bluff Assistant Police Chief Ivan Whitfield shelled out the $100-per-plate to attend the gala affair with his wife Loretta.

He said, "I love the university…It’s been very good to me."

Cortez Henderson, a professional development specialist, reflected the sentiments of many others at the dinner when she said, "I’m here to support the new chancellor and a new era at UAPB."

Gail Reede-Jones, who attended with her husband, former AM&N basketball player who was named to the Southwestern Athletic Conference Hall of Fame, Danny Campbell, were the high bidders on several pieces of art up for grabs at the Silent Art Auction.

"The university is important to us … and yes, we’re paying it forward," Jones said.

Six-year-old Kaleb Sullivan said he sees himself as a future member of the Golden Lions’ pride. The support of those who have struggled and now willing to extend a hand will be the key to his success.

Roaf said, we must continue to "encourage our students to be the best they can be."