By Joel Phelps
When I learned that Fish Net owner Ronnie O’Keefe had died in a car accident, I dropped everything I had going to find out some facts so that I could share the news with my readers.
I can’t say the Fish Net was among my go-to restaurants, as I’m simply not keen on fried fish (I know, I know: how un-Southern of me, right?). And I can’t say I knew Ronnie on a first-name basis. But what I can say is that Arkadelphia/Caddo Valley lost a legendary restauranteur.
Reporting fatal car accidents or any sort of incident where a life is lost is not a task I take lightly. The real victims in these scenarios are the surviving relatives and friends. Sometimes, in the worst case, these same people learn of the death from the media. I’ll do my very best to ascertain that doesn’t happen with this news site.
The typical fatal car crash, for the media, involves looking at a report filed either by state police or local law enforcement, then making sense of the police narrative for our audience. We usually just stick to the basic facts. Ronnie’s death, had he not been such a staple in Arkansas’ restaurant industry, could have been “just another car accident.” Instead, I did what most reporters do in these cases: I found someone close to him and asked for a comment about his character.
Vickie Egleston had known Ronnie for three and a half decades — that’s as long as I’ve been breathing — and on the morning after his death, I’m certain the last thing she wanted was some nosy reporter calling with questions about a sensitive subject.
I could hear Vickie’s voice crack on the other line as she wept while she tried to piece together nearly 40 years of knowing someone into a concise statement. I waited until she was finished to show her both sympathy and empathy, as I could relate to Ronnie’s accident and know personally just how scary his last moments were.
Emotions run extremely high in these moments, and that’s generally when you get the best quotes. It’s these human emotions that make award-winning journalism. But, if I’m being honest, it’s not worth any accolades or even compliments from readers (although the compliments are appreciated, they’re not necessary).
This, for me, is the worst part of being a journalist. The stories where lives are lost are the ones audiences consume like no other, and I don’t quite understand that. Since launching The Arkadelphian this summer, my biggest hits have been casualties (I have the statistics to prove it) — never mind the profiles on interesting people living in our community. Generally speaking, people see all the gloom we report, then bitch about the media reporting nothing but bad news.
It’s enough to make me want to return to the lumber industry, where the money was great and the only worry was ensuring a quality product (but that’s for another column!).
This may be the end of the line for Ronnie, but I’m glad he was recognized — just as recently as this year — for his lifelong dedication to operating a famed catfish restaurant, in Arkadelphia Life magazine. I wish I had been the one to tell his story when he was alive and selling catfish plates to customers who always left satisfied.
To his family and friends, I’m deeply saddened for your loss, and do your best to find solace in the memories you’ll always cherish.
As for the rest of us, grab your loved ones as often as you can and tell them how much you love them, because none of us are guaranteed tomorrow.