Bob Hendrix: Cultivating a Meaningful Life

Ask Bob Hendrix where he’s from, and he’ll say Malvern, Arkansas. Well, almost. He actually grew up about seven miles outside of Malvern, near Poyen. Really, though, their family farm was four miles from Poyen, in the small community of Big Creek. 

His dad was a farmer who, right out of high school, went into the chicken business and produced table eggs. His dad also raised cows and hogs and grew truck crops. This is where Bob did his first gardening. He was among the older four of six boys who helped most with farming work.

Much time has passed since those days. Reflecting back recently, he told someone how his grandfather had given him a Bible for Christmas when he was 5 years old. That Bible is now 81 years old. “Can you believe it?”

After a career in the poultry business, Bob has returned to his gardening roots in his retirement at Butterfield Trail Village, where he and his wife, Karen, have lived for nearly 10 years. Bob organized projects at companies for decades, and now he helps keep things organized at the shared residents’ garden on the BTV grounds. 

There are 23 garden plots assigned to residents. A chart of the plots and a list of their owners’ names and phone numbers are posted inside the door of the garden shed. That shed also stores tools — such as hoes, shovels, pitchforks — and other supplies that everyone can use. A gardener recently donated a lightweight, battery-powered tiller that is easier to maneuver than traditional tillers.

A tall chain-link fence surrounds the garden area to keep out deer and other wildlife. Most of the plots are marked by landscaping timbers, which must be replaced every few years. The middle section holds several raised beds. 

Bob does some tilling for a few residents to prepare their beds for planting. There are more vegetables than flowers in the garden at this point, but many irises, peonies and other flowers are in the mix. Residents grow their own produce and sell any surplus at a weekly farmers market during the growing season.

“I enjoy working with the BTV gardeners and helping to solve problems that arise in the garden,” he said. “It is great to have produce which we can share with the residents and staff.”

Bob got started gardening again by helping out another resident, Carl Koffler, who was an avid gardener. He helped Carl replace some timbers and then helped with weeding the beds when his health was failing. After he passed, Bob took over his garden spot.

Bob goes by a few basic gardening tenets: Don’t plant too early; keep the weeds down; and regularly water the plants.

Rooted in Farming 

In his youth in Big Creek, Bob’s family grew sizeable gardens that included corn, okra, tomatoes, peas, peppers, squash, potatoes and watermelon. On Sunday afternoons, instead of playing baseball or basketball with his friends, Bob helped his family prepare the produce to take to market on Monday. They delivered produce to grocery stores and restaurants in Hot Springs, Malvern and Pine Bluff, and chickens and eggs to restaurants in Hot Springs. 

His dad was on the school board and served as state treasurer for the Future Farmers of America. His mother was a national 4-H leader, started two local 4-H clubs and put a lot of time into home economics clubs. She also worked on the farm with the rest of the family.

“I don’t know how she ever did it, but she raised six boys and worked in the fields, had to cook three meals a day, wash all their clothes,” he said. The older boys did take turns washing dishes each night.

After graduating from Malvern High School, Bob went to Southern Arkansas University (Southern State at the time) to study two years in their agriculture program. His tuition was $50 a semester, and students could work on the farm there to earn room and board. It had chickens and cows; they milked the cows, pasteurized the milk and made ice cream.

Bob then took a job milking cows for a year to earn money to return to college, this time at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in animal science. He also got his master’s degree in poultry science at the U of A. Several of his college buddies ended up going into the poultry business, too. 

A Career in Poultry

Bob’s first job out of college was at OK Foods in Fort Smith, where, as an assistant nutritionist, he worked with the chicken growers and visited their operations. These were contract farmers, and Bob tried to help them solve problems and made sure they were following protocols.

A couple of years later, certain he would get drafted, Bob joined the Arkansas Air National Guard in Fort Smith. He spent six years in the guard, including one year on active duty during the Berlin Crisis. 

Then he got a call about a job opening at the Campbell Soup Swanson plant (now ConAgra) in Fayetteville. He started working there in 1961 as a service man, again working with the poultry growers. Then in 1966, the company opened a new plant in Sumter, South Carolina. Bob had the opportunity to go there and do live production, growing the birds to get them to the plant. The operation included building a feed mill and hatchery and working with the growers.

“And it always amazed me that Campbell Soup was willing to turn something over to a 29-year-old kid, who thought he knew everything, and let him do it. And it worked,” he said.  

He faced one of his biggest challenges in South Carolina, which was row crop country and void of chicken houses. Campbell Soup built three chicken houses to show what they should look like. By 1968, they had signed on the contract growers and had about 300 poultry houses built. 

Then in 1973, a snowstorm dumped 23 inches of snow — a weight that the chicken houses weren’t built to withstand. The roofs of several houses collapsed, and many chickens were lost. The National Guard came to help, and Campbell Soup ended up paying about half the costs of building new houses to get the contract growers back in operation.

Back to Arkansas, Then Texas

In 1974, Bob returned to Arkansas to work for Mountaire Farms, owned by the Cameron family of Little Rock. He oversaw live production at a complex in DeQueen with a plant, feed mill and hatchery. A year later, he was promoted to complex manager over the whole southwest Arkansas operation. 

In September 1981, the company sold the complex to Pilgrim’s Pride, based in Pittsburg, Texas, and Bob stayed on with the company. While he was at Pilgrim’s Pride, the company bought ConAgra’s poultry business in 2003 and Gold Kist in 2006. When he started working for the company, they processed about 2 million chickens per week. Over the years, that grew to about 40 million chickens per week. When he retired in 2009, Bob had been with the two companies a combined 35 years – and had spent a solid 50 years after college working in the poultry industry.

“Every day was different, and you always had more to do than you could get done,” he said about the poultry business. He’s also grateful for good friends who helped him in his career during tough times. 

Bob and Karen met at Calvary Baptist Church in Fayetteville, where they were also married in September 1959. They’ll celebrate 63 years together this fall. 

While working for Pilgrim’s Pride, the Hendrix family lived in Pittsburg, Texas. Their daughter, Camille, still lives there. She got an interior design and marketing degree from the University of North Texas. She received an interior design and marketing degree from the University of North Texas. Their son, Blake, earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. He was living in Carrollton, Texas, with his wife and stepson when, tragically, he died in 2007 from a severe reaction to a wheat allergy at age 42.

Life at BTV

Two or three years after Bob retired, he and Karen moved from Texas to Fayetteville, where she had been raised. They found the lot they wanted at BTV, and Karen customized how the interior of their new home would look. They moved in in fall 2012. 

Bob starts each morning with coffee and reading the newspaper on an iPad, and he often walks two miles with BTV friends. He enjoys reading westerns and biographies of former presidents. He prefers meaningful conversations to small talk, and never took coffee breaks during his career. Now, however, there’s a group of residents — some who were in school together, plus a few others — who meet regularly for coffee and discussions.

Bob usually checks on his garden each day. He’s growing three big beds of strawberries — all the Sweet Charlie variety that he ordered from Ison’s Nursery in Georgia. Last October, he planted the new plants, covering the beds in black plastic and cutting holes to insert the plants. This method controls weeds and keeps dirt off the strawberries. They were starting to ripen in early May, and he’ll replace these plants in a couple of years. 

He grows three types of tomatoes – Cherokee purple, which he considers the best tasting, along with Beefsteak and Celebrity tomatoes. He’s also growing corn, purple hull peas and peppers — including four jalapeño and two banana pepper plants.

Bob was proud of how his corn looked when it first poked through the dirt this spring. He makes sure the plants are away from the edge of the bed, with plenty of space to develop deep roots to anchor them when they get to full height. 

“I enjoy producing the stuff,” he said. “I can go down there every day and watch that stuff come up and grow a little bit. I enjoy that.” 

One new BTV resident wanted a garden spot this year because she had never had much time to spend with her grandchildren. Her two grandsons now come out and help her garden. “That works out good,” Bob said.