Jim Elder scholarship fund coming to an end after more than two decades
Saturday will mark 24 years since the death of legendary Arkansas sports broadcaster Jim Elder. He died unexpectedly on June 25, 1998 after returning home from anchoring his morning sportscasts on Little Rock radio station KARN and the Arkansas Radio Network.
Elder’s death prompted an outpouring that led his daughter Susan Elder to create a scholarship program to help support future broadcasters and journalists. In the years since, the Jim Elder Good Sport Fund has provided financial assistance to about 60 students at universities around the state.
Amid the grief immediately after her dad’s death, she says a friend encouraged her to start a scholarship program and gave her initial funding to launch it.
“He said, you know people are going to want to give money. Everybody loved your dad, give them a place to do it. And, I thought I just don't have time to deal with this right now, and there was too much else, but he wrote me a big check to get it started,” Elder said in an interview. “So, I was kind of lured into doing it that way, and I'm very grateful for that.”
But a mix of circumstances have led to the fund’s board members deciding to bring it to an end. The scholarships had been available to students beginning in their junior year and could be renewed in their senior year. Elder says, “There are a couple of students who will get it again next year, but we won't be having any more applications sent out."
Jim Elder’s legacy
Jim Elder was well known for his dedication to reporting sports and had an encyclopedic knowledge of sports. For much of his career, he worked long hours. In addition to anchoring early morning and late afternoon sportscasts, for decades he also delivered play-by-play for Arkansas Travelers games. He also provided broadcast stats during Arkansas Razorback football games.
Elder didn’t mind working hours that would wear down most people. He used to say he only slept about four hours a night. But he was doing what he loved.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Elder became an avid sports fan. While in high school, he worked as a copy boy at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he developed an interest in journalism.
An entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas says after serving in the military during World War II, earning a Bronze Star Medal for bravery and the Purple Heart for his actions during the Battle of the Bulge, Elder wanted to study journalism at the University of Pennsylvania. But a two-year waiting list for tuition assistance led him to instead attend an umpire training school in Florida.
Elder became a baseball umpire in 1947, refereed for youth and school leagues and managed a Hot Springs baseball team for a year. In 1960 he was hired to do play-by-play for Travelers games, then five years later began anchoring sportscasts and sharing his passion for sports with radio listeners. He would remain at the station for the rest of his life.
Elder was also very supportive of young people aspiring to go on the air or just getting into the business of sports reporting.
“My dad was an encourager,” Susan Elder said. Fellow sports reporter and columnist Harry King told her that her dad “delighted in other people’s accomplishments.”
“I thought that was a beautiful way to put it. And I got a lot of these kinds of comments after my dad died, people saying, oh, he helped me so much,” Elder said. “He just wanted to encourage others, and he took a lot of delight in doing that.
That’s why she says the suggestion to start a scholarship program in her dad’s name made sense.
Elder asked several people who had worked with her dad or were close friends of his to join her on the board of the nonprofit. For more than two decades, they would interview students majoring in broadcasting or journalism-related studies and award scholarships, which in recent years have been for $6,000 per year. Financial need was a factor that was taken into consideration.
“They were working a job or two and hopefully this scholarship let them quit one of them,” Elder said.
The board also gave some students who weren’t offered scholarships a one-time financial award, which she says was based on a variety of factors.
“We wanted to thank them for applying, and we enjoyed meeting them, but they weren't the winner, but we want to encourage them,” Elder said. “It all goes back to that.”
Sonny Rhodes recently retired as a professor in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s School of Mass Communication where he served as a point person suggesting potential scholarships for which students could apply.
“I thought it was tremendously generous on the part of Susan and the scholarship,” Rhodes said. “I can say first hand that this would have to rank among one of the more generous scholarships that I’ve ever seen available locally.”
Much of the money for the scholarships came from the large donor who wrote the initial check that launched the program. There were also fundraisers like auctions, golf tournaments and annual Home Plate Heroes Night for several years at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, which is today the home of the Arkansas Travelers.
Among the items auctioned off over the years were paintings or images on pieces of wood shaped like home plates. Elder says she has about 10 of those around her home. Rhodes said he bought several items at the auctions knowing the money was going for an important cause.
“Anytime I see Susan I want to shake her hand and thank her for the generosity of this scholarship. I think it made a huge difference in a number of lives,” Rhodes said.
Scholarships coming to an end
Elder says a number of factors, including the challenges of fundraising and the mission of the nonprofit led board members to decide it couldn’t last forever.
“We had a large donor for several years and that ended several years ago because we decided that this was a scholarship fund primarily,” she said. “I just run it. There's no employees. We don't have any expenses, and we didn't want to be out there trying to compete for people's money to take away from someone who had a payroll and expenses and an everyday goal and purpose that they were working on."
The board decided not to host additional fundraisers and to use what money was left for final scholarships at the full amount of $6,000 for each student per year.
“We would give meaningful amounts for as long as it lasted and that time has come,” Elder said.
“Our last applications went out this year, and the scholarships are for two years, potentially. So, there are a couple of students who will get it again next year, but we won't be having any more applications sent out.”
The current scholarships will continue until the end of the spring semester in 2024 at universities around the state.
Among the final students to get a scholarship from the Jim Elder Good Sport Fund was Alexandria Brown who completed her Bachelor of Arts degree at UA Little Rock and graduated last month. She was also an intern in the newsroom at KUAR and has since been hired as a part-time anchor and reporter.
“It was such a huge help, a huge relief from my shoulders financially,” Brown said. “He was obviously a spectacular person in the sports world, and it was an honor to be recognized by his daughter. It inspired me to hopefully give something back to my alma mater. It’s a wonderful thing that they’re doing.”