Onetime El Dorado student Clair Barnhouse is now teaching at the school
Photography by Janet Warlick
High school principal Alva Reibe, an El Dorado native herself, says students expect teachers to prepare them for college. And when their expectations are not met, she hears about it. “I had two students in my office who were not understanding a math course,” she says. “These are two students who probably would not have gone to college before. But they said to me, ‘Ms. Reibe, we need to understand this because we are going to college.’ A few years ago, before the Promise, they wouldn’t do that.”

Part of a Bigger Plan
As hopeful and optimistic as the Promise scholarship is today, its roots are tinged with a certain element of desperation. Ever since Murphy Oil was incorporated in 1950, it has maintained its headquarters in El Dorado, despite its oil- and gas-exploration ­operations across the globe. For much of that time, El Dorado was a vibrant place to live, with a stable population and plenty of jobs. For a whole host of reasons, however, El ­Dorado entered into a long and lasting period of decline over the past few decades. “We have the typical issues facing small towns in the South and Midwest,” says Claiborne Deming, chairman of Murphy Oil, who as the former CEO was the driving force behind the creation of the Promise scholarship. “There’s the siren song of bigger cities, and the best and brightest graduate and don’t come back.”
El Dorado High School teacher Clair Barnhouse
Photography by Janet Warlick

In large part, Deming says, the Promise scholarship was thought of as a lifeline to the city of El Dorado, a way to make it an attractive place for well-educated and skilled people to live. There’s a certain amount of self-interest in what Murphy has done: If the Fortune 500 company wants to maintain its home office in the city, and it does, it has to be able to attract good workers. “On the purely good side, it’s sending people to college with no strings attached because it’s a good place for them to be,” Deming says. “On the other side, it selfishly provides an economic backbone to a town that could use it.”

As important as it is, the Promise scholarship program is just one part of a larger effort to revitalize El Dorado and position it for a bright future. Already blessed with a downtown core populated with attractive historic buildings that are now home to restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries, El Dorado is making big investments in order to turn the area just south of downtown into a thriving arts district. In the fall of 2012, the El Dorado City Council agreed to contribute $9 million to an overall $50 million initiative that will see, among other things, the refurbishment of the Rialto Theatre, a city landmark since 1929, which will become home to the Southern Theatre Festival. There will also be an outdoor theater, art galleries, an arts-administration building, parks and a farmers market, all set to be completed in 2016.

While meant to draw plenty of tourists willing to spend money, the focus on making El Dorado an arts destination is designed to lure people to come live and work. “When you think of a small town in southern Arkansas, a lot of people think of a dead-end place,” Reibe says. “But I think we have a lot to offer people who would never think to come to a small town before.”

None of this would likely have happened without the Promise. As Deming points out, this is a strongly anti-tax area. So it’s a big deal for citizens to vote to spend public dollars to do things such as build a state-of-the-art school and the sort of infrastructure needed to become a regional arts hub. Deming and plenty of other locals are convinced that the Promise provided the sort of hope for the future that has spawned bigger plans. “I think what we did was create the momentum to really say, ‘Hey, there’s such a strong commitment to education that the community will be stable and grow,’ ” Deming says. “It enthused people.”

Visit to learn more about the scholarship.