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Oral Winston Edwards


1929 - 2017 Obituary Condolences
Oral Winston Edwards Obituary
Oral Winston Edwards, 87, of Forrest City, passed away Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. He was born Nov. 25, 1929, to Jesse and Grace Ahlf Edwards near Rector.
He was preceded in death by his loving wife of 50 years, Christine Austin Edwards. He was also preceded in death by his parents; two brothers, Leslie Edwards of Memphis, Robert (Bobby) Edwards of Marianna; two sisters, Ernestine McCartney and Cleatis Bowman, both of Las Vegas, Nev.; and a loving brother-in-law and sister-in-law Ben and Katherine Hickey, of Forrest City.
He is survived by one sister Marie Legault of Richardson, Texas.
He is also survived by one son, Steve Edwards and wife Laura of Marianna, and one daughter, Susan DeRossitt and husband Jim of Forrest City; loving grandchildren, Ashley Rowton and husband Paul of Harrisburg, Leigh Nance and husband Coe of Jonesboro, Steve Edwards, Jr. of Marianna, Frank DeRossitt and wife Beth of Bentonville, and John DeRossitt of Orlando, Fla.
"Papa," as he was known to his grandchildren, also leaves great grandsons J.P. Rowton, William Rowton, James Nance, Ben DeRossitt and Wyatt DeRossitt.
Oral was a self-made man. Born to humble beginnings in the Hopewell community outside Rector, his father was a barber and the entire family worked their 40 acre farm to provide a living. His family had lived in a big tent while they built their home. It was constructed by family members with the help of neighbors. Oral was born at home just after the new home was completed. Both of his grandmothers were present for the birth. Oral attended a two-room schoolhouse in the Hopewell community until eighth grade. He then attended and graduated from Rector High School, walking four miles to school. Shortly after graduating high school he moved to Blytheville, where he took a job as an accounting clerk at Arkansas-Missouri Power Company. He also took a part-time job on Saturdays working for Hays Store in Blytheville. It was there that he met the love of his life, Christine Austin. She was a bank cashier and worked a second job on Saturdays at Hays Store. Christine had also come from humble beginnings. She was raised in Blytheville. Her father worked for Bush's Canning Company and sharecropped 40 acres. The similarities of their upbringings made them appreciate the finer things in life while understanding the challenges of the working family.
It was also at Hays Store that Oral learned to appreciate and enjoy the grocery business. In 1958, he took a job as assistant manager in a Liberty Cash Supermarket in Millington, Tenn. After spending nearly two years there he was offered the opportunity to manage a grocery store in Kennett, Mo. He was a great store manager and after a couple of years he joined with some partners in a new store being built in growing Forrest City. In 1962, he and Chris loaded up their kids and made their final move to Forrest City. Arriving in Forrest City as an energetic 32-year-old, he immediately became involved in the chamber of commerce and industrial development. He was a hard worker and the new store quickly became a success. East Arkansas was growing and along with a couple of partners he began opening more stores. The company they founded, GES, Inc., eventually grew to 16 stores in Arkansas and Mississippi. These stores currently operate as Edwards Food Giant and Edwards Cash Saver stores. Oral was a mentor to many young men who later started their own grocery stores. For years they would call him for advice about how to handle a situation in their own stores. In his later years Oral could usually be found straightening the Kool-Aid section. He wanted to keep the cheapest price in town on Kool-Aid because it meant a family of shoppers would notice. He also liked to straighten the spices and seasoning pouches. If a customer bought one of those items they would also have to buy meat to go with it. Oral was always looking for a deal on something that he could offer to his customers at a lower price. In his younger years he loved to go to the Scott Street Market in Memphis and haggle with growers and truckers for the lowest price on a truckload of watermelons or cantaloupes.
Oral never met a stranger and shortly after he met you he would make you feel like a million dollars. His leadership skills and knowledge of the grocery business led him to be one of the charter board members and founders of the Arkansas Retail Grocers Association. Oral was presented the Arkansas Retail Grocer of the Year award by Gov. Bill Clinton in 1987. He and Gov. Clinton became friends and he became a confidant and advisor to the governor. He and Chris traveled to the White House to visit President Clinton on several occasions.
Oral was raised in a community with only one black man so he really never understood the racial problems that were beginning about the time he arrived in Forrest City. He always wanted to treat everyone equally. To him the grocery business was the people pleasing business and that applied to everyone. He wanted to sell a quality product at a fair price. He was the first white merchant in Forrest City to put a person of color at a cash register. That was met with some resistance but he became known as a man who was fair to everyone.
As the business grew, Oral became involved in many civic and business organizations. He was a director for many years at Planters Bank & Trust in Forrest City. He felt that his biggest accomplishment at the bank was starting Saturday banking in Forrest City. He was a proponent of the working man and felt the bank wasn't making their services available to folks who worked for a living. He became a director of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and was one of only two Lifetime Directors ever named by that organization. He served as a commissioner on the Mississippi River Parkway Commission for many years and enjoyed meeting with other commissioners up and down the river with hopes of improving the area. Even in his later years Oral was still involved in community affairs. He was recognized as Citizen of the Year by the Forrest City Area Chamber of Commerce in 2016.
He and Chris came up poor but neither of them realized it. They both came from loving families and didn't want for anything. Oral never attended a day of college but became chairman of two different college boards. He was a director and chairman of the East Arkansas Community College board for many years. He was the driving force in building the Fine Arts Center and the stage bears his name. He finally got his college degree when EACC awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree. He was also a director and chairman of the board of Baptist Memorial College of Heath Sciences in Memphis.
The Baptist hospital organization in Memphis was very import to Oral. He served on the Board of Trustees as well as the corporate board for nearly 30 years. He also served on that organization's foundation board. Oral and Chris were always trying to help others. They started two different funds in the Baptist system. At the college they started the Christine and Oral Edwards Scholarship Fund to benefit needy students going into health care professions. As Oral spent time around the Baptist Hospital system he saw many people who were staying with loved ones but didn't have money to eat. The fund that he was most proud of was The Christine and Oral Edwards Endowment Fund. The purpose of this fund is to dispense cafeteria food vouchers for needy families through the chaplain's office.
In Oral's early years in Blytheville, he was a member of the Arkansas National Guard. He left the National Guard as a 2nd Lieutenant when he moved from Blytheville. In 1957, while a guardsman, his unit was ordered to Little Rock by Governor Orville Faubus. The purpose was to keep peace and block black students from entering Central High School. Oral did not want to participate in this but had no choice. Luckily his unit had no confrontation. Approximately 40 years later he attended a gathering which honored the Little Rock Nine. He took that opportunity to personally apologize to several of them about that day in Little Rock.
Oral and Chris had read about the world in their early years and wanted to see it. They traveled extensively across the country and the world. They visited places considered unsafe today such as Morocco, Egypt, Iran, Russia and many other countries. Their life was not without excitement. While staying at the MGM Hotel in Las Vegas in 1980 the hotel caught fire. It is the second worst hotel fire in U.S. history and 85 people perished. Chris kept hearing sirens and realized the hotel was on fire. They ran down the hall knocking on doors and were credited with saving several lives.
Oral's hobbies were working in the stores, gardening and collecting antiques. He admired nice things and one day spotted a Boehm porcelain bird piece that he liked. Chris later bought it for him and he became a collector of the Boehm figurines. He later met Helen Boehm, owner of the Boehm studios, at an art show. They became good friends and Oral and Chris traveled with her on several excursions. While traveling with Mrs. Boehm they met Prince Charles and Princess Diana on two different occasions. They thought that was a pretty big deal for a couple of folks from Arkansas. They also traveled with Mrs. Boehm to Russia. They were present when she presented a Boehm American Eagle to Mrs. Gorbachev. It was the first item from the United States to be displayed in the Russian National Museum after the Cold War.
Oral helped lots of folks over the years. If they didn't have money for groceries he would give them food until they could pay. Many people have said that their families would have starved to death without him. His stores employed thousands over the nearly sixty year existence. Many young people had their first job working in his grocery stores. When the food pantry was started in Forrest City, he was a big supporter and continued that support for many years.
Oral's life changed dramatically in 2011 when he had a near fatal auto accident. He was in full arrest at the scene and was revived. He spent four days in a coma and months in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. He emerged weak but determined and spent the remainder of his years confined to a wheelchair. He still maintained his great attitude and continued to motivate and help others. He loved people and insisted on dining out regularly at area restaurants so he could visit with folks.
In later years Oral enjoyed coffee every morning at Burger King where a regular group met and told stories and bragged on their kids. This was the third morning coffee location that he had frequented and he often joked that he had outlived two other groups.
When the Edwards family first moved to Forrest City, they quickly found a church home at First Baptist Church. This was an important part of his life and even after his accident, he always wanted to be at church on Sunday. His best friends in life were the members of the Adult Four Men's Sunday School Class.
Visitation will be 5 to 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, at First Baptist Church in Forrest City. Funeral services will be at 2 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, at the church. Burial will follow at Forrest Park Cemetery.
Stevens Funeral Home of Forrest City in is charge of arrangements. Honorary pall bearers are the Adult Four Men's Sunday School Class and Food Giant Store Managers and Supervisors.
The family requests that any memorials be made to The Christine and Oral Edwards Endowment Fund at Baptist Memorial Health Care Foundation or The Christine and Oral Edwards Scholarship Fund at Baptist College of Health Sciences in Memphis. Either may be sent to: Baptist Memorial Health Care Foundation, 350 N. Humphreys Ave., Memphis, TN 38120 or to the St. Francis County Food Pantry, P.O. Box 3157, Forrest City, AR 72336.
Published in Times-Herald on Sept. 29, 2017
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