Once-lers Anonymous

“It's not about what it is, it's about what it can become.” ― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Flying Possum Legacy Lives On, Transforms (Final Draft)

on November 9, 2011

The signs of the March fire that damaged Flying Possum Leather, and caused the death of owner Bruce Walker, are beginning to disappear. The burnt wooden shakes on the awning at 526 W. Dickson St. and the plywood covering the doors are the last remnants of the ordeal.  Messages from the passerby of Dickson Street have filled the boards with condolences, but soon they too will be removed.

You "Left" but it will be all "Right"

“Bruce, you will always be a true legend to Dickson,” reads one of the many messages.

“I miss you Bruce! Put in a good word for me!”

“Thanks for being a good friend!”

“R.I.P. Bruce. I will miss you. Dickson will never be the same.”

Soon, those messages will be removed as renovations continue on the building. This week, Bruce Walker’s older brother Bob Walker, 64, finalized the details for a new idea, the Flying Possum reborn as a saloon.

Folloiwing his brother’s death, Bob Walker relocated to Fayetteville from Chico, Calif. He had contemplated reopening Flying Possum Leather, but the money wasn’t there to continue the venture.

“We didn’t really feel like Bruce would have wanted us to,” he said. “I think Dickson Street has been trying to leave Bruce behind for years.”

The bar would be open by January at the earliest, Bob Walker said.

“I’d like to have space to clear out and put a dance floor,” he said, but it is more important that what they put in the space works. He has taught different types of dance from swing to salsa for 18 years.

They hope to decorate the bar with Bruce memorabilia that people would recognize. The signature-filled plywood may be used on the patio, he said.

Bruce was known for his custom sandals styled like Birkenstocks, as well as his guitar straps.

“He made the best custom sandals. I’ve had four pairs over the last 35 years because they last a long time,” said musician Jed Clampit, 63, a friend of Bruce Walker since 1975. He still uses the guitar strap Bruce Walker made him in 1976, one of many musicians including Willie Nelson and Neil Young.

*    *    *

Bruce Walker was born six years after Bob Walker, in Searcy, Ark. They grew up greeting the public at their family’s grocery business, just a few doors down from their home.

Bruce Walker looked up to Bob Walker, his fellow renegade and the family musician.

“I won a lot of attention and awards through my music in school. …Bruce went on to be a very good singer, guitar player and drummer,” Bob Walker said.

“When he came to [visit me in] California, boy he was wide eyed,” said Bob Walker. In his late 20s at the time, Bob Walker had came to Chico with friends from the Navy.

He owned part of a bookstore in downtown Chico before he picked up leatherworking from another man working in the area. He later became a custom shoe and boot maker and was the first vendor in Chico to sell Birkenstock sandals.

Bruce Walker got his first experience with leatherwork and his first pair of Birkenstocks in that shop in 1973, Bob Walker said.

After his visit, Bruce Walker returned to Searcy and made his first few pairs of shoes.

“I’m not sure it was by design, but he found his way into the business,” Bob Walker said.

After moving to Northwest Arkansas in 1974, Bruce Walker worked at Blanchard Springs Caverns as a tour guide for the U.S. Forest Service. While walking down Dickson Street on a weekend visit, he noticed a help wanted sign in the recently opened Nelson Leather Co.’s window.

“He walked in, told them he made the shoes he was wearing, and they said, ‘you’re hired,’” Bob Walker said.

A year later, Nelson Leather Co. moved to Eureka Springs. Bruce Walker leased the half-unit and the 35-year reign of Flying Possum Leather began.

He leased the rest of the unit once it became available, even though it quadrupled his rent.

“He had already made up his mind that he was going to expand,” Bob Walker said.

Times weren’t always easy for Bruce Walker financially. He was often “dancing to the right and dancing to the left [maintaining his finances], but it never occurred to him to leave Dickson or get a smaller shop,” Bob Walker said. “Dickson Street, the Flying Possum, his dog [Bugsy], his craft, that was his persona. It didn’t have to make sense business wise. It was who he was.”

Bugsy, Bruce Walker's Dog

Bruce Walker was a hard person to describe, said Bil Jett, a long time friend who also worked on Dickson Street. “He was easy going for the most part, but if you ever made an enemy of him, by God he never forgot it.”

After Bugsy was taken from Bruce Walker’s side by emergency crews, Jett was one of many Fayetteville residents vying to give him a home.

“I just felt it was the right thing to do, one way I could honor Bruce,” he said. “I’d known Bugsy since he was a baby, and knew he was a really good dog.” Bugsy stays with Jett now, spending his days at work with Jett on Dickson Street.

Jett doesn’t have any problem with a bar replacing Flying Possum Leather. “To be honest, I didn’t think they could replace Bruce in there anyway.”

“[He was] more of an artist than a business man,” Clampit said. “He was just one of those unique guys that we have the opportunity to meet a few times in our lives.”

*   *   *

Bob Walker arrived in Fayetteville three days after the fire, but his grieving didn’t begin until he returned to California for two weeks.

“That’s where my connection [with Bruce] was, at home, in California,” Bob Walker said. He and his brother were close, talking on the phone late at night two to three times a week.

Support poured out for Bruce Walker’s family after the fire and during the clean-up.

“We had pages of people who signed up, and dozens of people who showed up [to help clean],” Bob Walker said. “It’s hard to name a few people, there were so many who gave so much. …No shortage of heroes in Fayetteville.”

Grown men have come up to Bob Walker, telling him stories of how they came to Fayetteville as freshmen, a little bit scared and a little bit homesick. They would walk into Flying Possum Leather, and leave two or three hours later feeling more at home, he said.

Four nights after the fire, 20 bands had signed up to play at a memorial service at George’s Majestic Lounge, across the street. The owner, Bruce Walker’s long-time friend Brian Crowne, may make it an annual event and donate the proceeds to non-profits that support things Bruce believed in. He would be blown away by the public outpouring, Bob Walker said.

Crowne could not be reached for comment.

“When my brother died, he left a void in many ways here on Dickson Street. Left a location, left a desire for something Bruce, something possum,” Bob Walker said. The family wanted to continue something in Fayetteville, so Bob Walker decided to leave his life in Chico as a semiretired dance instructor, and take a chance.

“You never know what’s coming for you,” he said, quoting “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

The community has been very supportive of the decision not to reopen as a leather store, Bob Walker said. “Nobody is going to do it like Bruce did, so I’m glad we’re really not even trying.”

Bob Walker has developed friendships with many of Bruce Walker’s friends, and community members who didn’t even know Bruce Walker, but wanted to be involved in the clean-up. “I’ve met more people on a fairly deep level than I could have in years living here.”

One of those people is Amy Clark, an invaluable volunteer after the fire, Bob Walker said. Now she is like a daughter to him; he visits her at work on Dickson Street. During this week’s thunderstorms, he made sure she would have transportation other than her bicycle.

“I feel really inclined to do what I can to help those who have helped me,” Bob Walker said.

He and his partners are still figuring out the particulars of the bar, but he has a good feeling about it.

“I just feel like the pieces of this puzzle are as right as they’re going to get,” Bob Walker said. “How much control do we have anyways?”

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One response to “Flying Possum Legacy Lives On, Transforms (Final Draft)

  1. bretschulte says:

    I love the slideshow. It’d be even better with captions, of course.

    The lede is much better, though it could be tightened. This is great:
    –Messages from the passerby of Dickson Street have filled the boards with condolences, but soon they too will be removed.

    But this is redundant:
    –Soon, those messages will be removed as renovations continue on the building.

    I like that this is up high in the story. I’d rather have a date than ‘this week.’ missing punctuation:
    –This week, Bruce Walker’s older brother Bob Walker, 64, finalized the details for a new idea, the Flying Possum reborn as a saloon.

    use spellcheck:
    –Folloiwing

    You need to tell us when he died. The date. And what the specific cause of death was:
    –Folloiwing his brother’s death, Bob Walker relocated to Fayetteville from Chico, Calif.

    This is an incredible quote:
    –“We didn’t really feel like Bruce would have wanted us to,” he said. “I think Dickson Street has been trying to leave Bruce behind for years.”

    awkward syntax:
    –but it is more important that what they put in the space works.

    You’ve got some good details — like what they plan on doing with the plywood where people recorded their personal eulogies. but you’re missing other important details, like when they were born. the year:
    –Bruce Walker was born six years after Bob Walker, in Searcy, Ark. They grew up greeting the public at their family’s grocery business, just a few doors down from their home.

    You have to make it clear that you’re talking about the day of the fire.
    –After Bugsy was taken from Bruce Walker’s side by emergency crews

    this new, tighter focus for the story is working much better. nice job.
    –Jett doesn’t have any problem with a bar replacing Flying Possum Leather. “To be honest, I didn’t think they could replace Bruce in there anyway.”

    We need to know the ages of Bruce when he died and his brother Bob today.

    This reminds me, we need a few words about the origins of the name Flying Possum:
    –“When my brother died, he left a void in many ways here on Dickson Street. Left a location, left a desire for something Bruce, something possum,”

    And we need to know, very briefly, if their parents are still alive or if there are other siblings.
    –The family wanted to continue something in Fayetteville, so Bob Walker decided to leave his life in Chico as a semiretired dance instructor, and take a chance.

    make it clear that they are business partners and tell us as much as you can about them:
    ‘–He and his partners are still figuring out the particulars of the bar, but he has a good feeling about it.

    This is a very nice re-write, Hailey. The tone and angle are much sharper and more compelling. You’ve done a good job of capturing the mood and of framing Bruce’s life in a way that is emotional and has a legacy. And it has a good news peg. Good work.

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