(May 1, 1934-Oct. 18, 2018)
Ralph’s answering machine for years greeted callers saying that they had reached the “Winn Creek Society for the Preservation of Endangered Species and the Ozark Folk Funk Kabuki Dance Troupe”. After being instructed to leave pertinent contact information the message concluded with “and thank you for not smoking”. You wouldn’t get more than a few words into your message before getting a half-hollered “Hey!” on his end, his familiar voice and philosophical disposition sounding ready for a visit.
Ralph’s quick wit and irreverent sense of humor always kept the conversations lively. He had a wealth of life experience, and an unconventional way of relating to the modern world. His convictions sometimes seemed anachronistic, maybe somewhat shamanistic, but never boring. He adopted a very simple way of life, re-introducing the barter system for goods and services, in what he called the “underground economy”, and money held little personal value to him. He was a gentle nonconformist and a self-proclaimed “born-again agnostic”.
Ralph grew up in Atkins, AR., the son of Harry and Jerald Odom and the older brother to Harriette Jane, in a middle-class household. His childhood home, known as “The Odom House”, still stands today. Although the shortest player on his high school football team, he led them as quarterback to the state championship in 1950, ran the half-mile in track, and even played basketball at one point. He played an integral role in teaching (and coaching) his children on how to properly handle a football, field a softball, swim in open water, swing a tennis racquet, spike a volleyball, and land a solid boxing jab or hook. He was a genuine competitor and instilled that drive while parenting his children; David, Luther, Mary, Anna and Myra.
Ralph served in the United States Army as a medic before honorably discharging in 1954. He had a great sense of compassion and a gift for healing, even then.
He spent a year in Paris, France studying fine art in the 1960’s. He went backpacking across Europe for a while, stayed in “Beatnik” hostels, read and wrote poetry and sampled some of the local organics. When leaving Paris, he rode a bicycle down to Spain, crossing the Pyrenees (without getting off of his bike to push it up hills). He had, even then, a persevering and independent spirit.
When he came back to the US in 1968, he settled down a bit, got married (a couple of times), raised some children and chose to further his education by receiving a Master’s in Fine Arts degree from the University of Arkansas in 1971, with an undergraduate Sociology focus. Ralph taught a variety of mediums including, but not limited to: acrylic, oil, charcoal, watercolor, ceramics and batik at the University of Arkansas- Pine Bluff and then at Philander Smith College in Little Rock (where, incidentally, he had Meadowlark Lemon’s wife, Willye, as a student).
For almost a decade, as a second career, he worked in the City of Fayetteville Civil Engineering Dept. as a draftsman, from which he retired in 1995. Then he settled into his 8-acre plot nestled in the untamed woods of Winslow, AR.
This was his most private and peaceful place (except that time he let the Flower Children come live for free in the 80’s). He knew the land like the back of his hand: including all species of trees, shrubs, edible or otherwise useful herbs, woodland creatures and, of course, mushrooms. At his home, near the confluence of Riley and Winn Creeks, he pumped fresh water from the nearby spring, had a vintage wood burning stove, and maintained a functional, and decorative outhouse.
That is until his simple abode caught fire, almost 3 years ago from the day of his passing, and burned to the ground. Unfortunately, many of his original painting negatives were also destroyed. But did this deter the Giant Mountain Troll? Not a chance. What would have been a tremendous setback for the Average 81 year-old Joe, was just another opportunity disguised as a tragedy for Ralph. His mantra of “the more you know, the less you need” was truly a philosophy he lived by daily. He took life on the cuff, in his own time with his own stride, often saying “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it”. Ralph found refuge in the unconditional love and support of his vast social network and dancing community, which raised the funds to build anew – and together erected a new home for him just a stone’s throw from his original house so he could wouldn’t miss a beat and could “keep on truckin’.”
The Giant Mountain Troll’s calling card advertised “Living off the Land – Basic Living Skills”, “Native American Values”. When the oyster mushrooms, honey mushrooms, tree ears, or hen-of-the-woods were abundant, you may have lucked into Ralph giving you a bag of them. He loved exchanging goods. If you had eggs, he’d have venison…. Ralph was a lifetime animal lover and would always send something for the dogs too: big beef bones or kidney from the butcher near Woolsey Road.
Ralph was sighted on several occasions with a fishing pole catching trout below the dam at Beaver Lake. He spent several years with Chris, his righteous fishing buddy, catching their limit at the honey hole of their choosing. There was a time (and just ask his daughter, Myra) when Ralph would fish all day, every possible day, regardless of the temperature of the air, mosquito count or the frequency of their biting. He passed that passion onto many young folks, fashioning cane poles from his land for them so he could teach them that art as well.
His calling card also identified him as an Endangered Species. Most importantly, it names his primary calling – “Spirit Dancer”, and of course, “Seeking Female Counterpart”- these last two being key parts of the Friday night Happy Hour ritual at George’s Majestic Lounge. He danced barefoot, arches of his feet duct- taped for support, as the blues poured out of the joint like the sweat from his brow. One beer would last him the entire evening. It was ALL about the music and the dancing.
Ralph Lee Odom was a larger than life character here in Northwest Arkansas and he lived a full and purposeful one on this earth. He’d want all those owners of his gifted buckeyes to keep them safe, hold them often, and smile knowing that they will always possess a treasured piece of the one and only GMT.