He was a confidant of the future President Bill Clinton and with his wife twice met Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Not bad for “a couple of folks from Arkansas.” Mr. Oral Winston Edwards, 87, of Forrest City, Arkansas, passed away Sept. 29. A self-made man, Mr. Edwards founded GES Inc., which today operates stores under the Edwards Food Giant and Edwards Cash Saver banners.
Mr. Edwards was born Nov. 25, 1929, in the Hopewell community near Rector, Arkansas. He was the son of Jesse and Grace Ahlf Edwards. His father was a barber and the entire family worked their 40-acre farm to provide a living. His family lived in a large tent while they built their home. Neighbors helped with the construction.
Mr. Edwards was born at home just after the new house was built. Both of his grandmothers were present for the birth. Mr. Edwards attended a two-room schoolhouse in the Hopewell community until eighth grade. He walked four miles to attend and ultimately graduate from Rector High School.
First grocery job was in Blytheville
Shortly after graduating high school, Mr. Ewards moved to Blytheville, Arkansas, where he took a job as an accounting clerk at Arkansas-Missouri Power Co. 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. She also had come from humble beginnings. She was raised in Blytheville. Her father worked for Bush’s Canning Co. and sharecropped 40 acres. The couple was married for 50 years before her passing.
It also was at Hays Store that Mr. Edwards learned to appreciate and enjoy the grocery business. In 1958, he took a job as assistant manager in a Liberty Cash Supermarket in Millington, Tennessee. After spending nearly two years there he was offered the opportunity to manage a grocery store in Kennett, Missouri. 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, Arkansas.
The family moves to Forrest City
In 1962, the Edwardses loaded up their kids and made their final move to Forrest City. Arriving in Forrest City as an energetic 32-year-old, Mr. Edwards 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, Mr. Edwards 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.
Mr. Edwards 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, Mr. Edwards 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, he or she would also have to buy meat to go with it.
Mr. Edwards 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.
A presidential confidante
Mr. Edwards 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. He was presented the Arkansas Retail Grocer of the Year award by then-Gov. Bill Clinton in 1987. He and Clinton became friends and he became a confidant and advisor to the governor. The Edwardses traveled to the White House to visit President Clinton on several occasions.
Mr. Edwards was raised in a community that was home to 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 Mr. Edwards became known as a man who was fair to everyone.
As the business grew, Mr. Edwards 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. He was a proponent for the working man and felt the bank wasn’t making its 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, Mr. Edwards still was involved in community affairs. He was recognized as Citizen of the Year by the Forrest City Area Chamber of Commerce in 2016.
The Edwardses may have “come up poor” but neither realized it. Both came from loving families and wanted for nothing. Mr. Edwards 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 (EACC) board for many years. He was the driving force in building the Fine Arts Center and the stage bears his name.
Mr. Edwards got a college degree when EACC awarded him an honorary doctorate of humanities degree. He also was a director and chairman of the board of Baptist Memorial College of Health Sciences in Memphis, Tennessee. The Baptist hospital organization in Memphis was very important to Mr. Edwards. 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.
The Edwardses always were 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 healthcare professions. As Mr. Edwards 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. Its purpose is to dispense cafeteria food vouchers for needy families through the chaplain’s office.
National Guard service in a time of strife
In Mr. Edwards’ 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 Arkansas Gov. Orville Faubus. The purpose was to keep peace and block black students from entering Central High School. Mr. Edwards did not want to participate in this but had no choice. Fortunately, his unit had no confrontation. Approximately 40 years later, he attended a gathering that honored the “Little Rock Nine” students who broke the racial barrier at Central High School. He took that opportunity to personally apologize to several of them about that day in Little Rock.
The Edwardses 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. Mrs. Edwards kept hearing sirens and realized the hotel was on fire. The couple ran down the hall knocking on doors and were credited with saving several lives.
Hobbies and collections
In addition to working in the stores, Mr. Edwards hobbies included gardening and collecting antiques. He admired nice things and one day spotted a Boehm porcelain bird piece that he liked. Mrs. Edwards 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 the Edwardses 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 there when she presented a Boehm American Eagle to Mrs. Mikhail Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet leader. It was the first item from the U.S. to be displayed in the Russian National Museum after the Cold War.
A compassionate man
Mr. Edwards 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 company’s nearly 60-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.
An auto accident
Mr. Edwards’ life changed dramatically in 2011 when he had a near fatal auto accident. He was in full cardiac 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, Mr. Edwards 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.
Visitation today, services tomorrow
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 Mr. Edwards’ 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.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Edwards also was preceded in death by his parents; two brothers, Leslie Edwards of Memphis, Tennessee and Robert (Bobby) Edwards of Marianna, Arkansas; two sisters, Ernestine McCartney and Cleatis Bowman, Las Vegas, Nevada; and brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Ben and Katherine Hickey of Forrest City. He also is survived by a sister, Marie Legault of Richardson, Texas; son, Steve Edwards and wife, Laura, of Marianna, Arkansas; daughter, Susan DeRossitt and husband, Jim, of Forrest City; grandchildren, Ashley Rowton and husband, Paul, of Harrisburg, Arkansas; Leigh Nance and husband, Coe, of Jonesboro, Arkansas; Steve Edwards Jr. of Marianna, Arkansas; Frank DeRossitt and wife, Beth, of Bentonville, Arkansas; and John DeRossitt of Orlando, Florida; and great-grandsons, J.P. Rowton, William Rowton, James Nance, Ben DeRossitt and Wyatt DeRossitt.
Visitation is scheduled for today, Oct. 2, from 5-8 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Forrest City. Funeral services will be tomorrow, Oct. 3, at 2 p.m. at the church. Burial will follow at Forrest Park Cemetery. Honorary pallbearers 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. Donations to either may be sent to Baptist Memorial Health Care Foundation, 350 North Humphreys Avenue, Memphis, TN 38120 or The St. Francis County Food Pantry, P.O. Box 3157, Forrest City, AR 72336.