Photographs by Eilish Palmer
Maria Hoskins of Mayflower holds a copy of Christmas Night on the Farm, a book she self-published. She originally planned just to give a copy of the story to her mother, but Hoskins said her friend Patrick Oliver, founder of Say It Loud!, a literary-arts program, encouraged her to publish the book. Hoskins said she plans to follow the Christmas book with three more holiday stories.
Sunday, December 7, 2014
Maria Hoskins has worked for a U.S. congressman, met Gladys Knight and danced with James Brown, but it’s memories of her childhood in Mayflower that she said are most special to her.
Her mother, Berthenia Gill, grew up and still lives in Mayflower, and Hoskins’ stepfather was in the military.
“We were always traveling, always traveling. Even though we lived so many other places, we always came back to Mayflower, and I always couldn’t wait to get back to Mayflower,” Hoskins said. Her grandmother Lillie Ella Collins had a farm there. Hoskins said her uncle Odus Collins helped her grandmother with the farm and helped raise Gill.
Hoskins, who lives in Mayflower, said her
family lived the longest time on an Air Force base in Missouri, but she also remembers living in Georgia and Texas. Hoskins, who said she was a shy child until a teacher coaxed her out of her shell, went to first and second grades in Mayflower, as well as part of seventh grade.
Looking for a school to challenge her daughter, Gill put Hoskins in the Conway School District, then Little Rock schools, and Hoskins graduated from Hall High School.
“I was interested in radio-TV and a little bit interested in the record business,” she said. Hoskins went for a semester to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where she took dance. At the University of Central Arkansas, she took every course in radio and film she could find, and won speech and debate contests. She took her basics before graduating in 1982 from Philander Smith, where her mother and her father, Alvin Gill, had also graduated, she said.
Hoskins danced her way through high school and college. If there was a dance contest or talent show, she was there and usually won a cash prize, which she used for her spending money. Modern dance and jazz were her specialties, she said
“I loved to dance,” Hoskins said. “It was just natural.”
In high school, she and a male friend competed at the James Brown Dance Competition at Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock.
“I was cutting it up so bad — we had the crowd going crazy,” Hoskins said. Brown was backstage, watching, and “he slid on out there” and danced with her, she said.
Hoskins and her partner won, and it was supposed to be $300 each, but they got only $300 to split.
“I remember that,” she said. It’s still a sticking point with her.
Her dancing skills led to a job as a choreographer for a record company in Philadelphia. She and a friend were in Memphis at a dance venue, and Hoskins was noticed by a record-company employee, who recruited her to be a choreographer. She then trained and learned the publishing side of the record business.
“It was wonderful; I got to travel,” she said. “I met Gladys Knight. She was always nice.”
Hoskins recalled that years later, then-Gov. Bill Clinton attended a Gladys Knight concert at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, and a member of Knight’s entourage called out to Hoskins, “Gladys said to come on back.” Clinton said, “Why do you get to come on back?” Hoskins said, laughing.
Hoskins said she didn’t like Philadelphia and moved back to Arkansas in 1984.
“I don’t like big cities. I’m a country girl at heart — I like Arkansas,” she said. Her first job back in Arkansas was as an assistant teacher in the Mayflower School District; then she worked for Virco Manufacturing Co. and the Arkansas Educational Television Network, where she was volunteer coordinator.
When she left AETN, she went back to the Mayflower School District for a brief time before being hired at Acxiom. At Mayflower, she worked with Jan Faubus, the wife of former Gov. Orval Faubus, who was best known for his role in the 1957 desegregation crisis in Little Rock. He called in the Arkansas National Guard to keep nine African-American students from attending Little Rock Central High School.
“I didn’t know his history,” Hoskins said. “I had been traveling growing up; they didn’t teach that. One of my best friend’s sisters was one of the Little Rock Nine — she never mentioned it.”
Divorced with two children, Hoskins was living in Conway. She wanted to buy a house, and Jan Faubus said she and Orval had bought a new home and had a house for sale on the outskirts of Conway near the Gold Lake community. When Hoskins said she couldn’t afford it, Jan had Hoskins come meet with Orval.
“He said, ‘Jan likes you and wants to help you.’ They set a contract up that was affordable for me and two kids,” Hoskins said. The former governor also asked Hoskins if she knew civil-rights activist Daisy Bates, which Hoskins did, because Bates was a friend of Hoskins’ mother. Hoskins said the former governor told her, “Behind closed doors, we got along fine.”
He asked Hoskins if she knew much about his time as governor, and she said she didn’t. He gave her signed copies of two books, Down From the Hill, and a paperback about his life in Huntsville, and told her to read them.
When Hoskins told her mother whose home she was buying, Gill was aghast.
“She was like, ‘What? Who?’ It just blew her out of the water because she knew the history,” Hoskins said. Then, Hoskins said, she read Faubus’ books. Hoskins later sold the home and said she regrets that she didn’t take the brass door knocker that was engraved with Faubus’ name. When she went to get it, the homeowner had renovated and gotten rid of the door. Hoskins said she hopes someone recognized the historical significance and kept the door knocker.
Her next move was to Acxiom, a job she took for the pay increase, she said.
“Acxiom downsized me, which was a blessing,” she said. Hoskins spent the summer with her two daughters, Victoria Brown and Christina Brown. “They still say that was the best summer. Victoria will tell you that right now,” Hoskins said.
Hoskins wasn’t out of work long. She became an account executive for Pax TV in Little Rock.
“I had found my niche. My niche was getting churches on TV,” she said. Churches weren’t all over television in 1994, she said.
She left Pax TV in 1999, when it was sold. She was doing consulting work when she mentioned to a friend, who worked with 2nd Congressional District U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., that she was available if a job was open.
Within two weeks, Hoskins had a meeting with Snyder. She started in his office Dec. 15, 2000, in community outreach and as a district aide and acting district director, and by the end of her 10-year stint, in January 2011, she was among senior district staff. Snyder decided not to run for office again.
“I like him, like him a lot,” she said. “I liked his ethics; I liked the job.” She was over human services, and took care of any matter related to the Arkansas Department of Human Services, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. “He worked so hard to really make an impact and do what he could for people. His ethics were just out the roof.”
Hoskins is proud of the work she did, too, particularly to help small businesses get work with the federal government. Also, she helped get the word out to senior citizens about legislation that could help them with the cost of prescription medications.
“I spent a lot of time finding pharmaceutical companies that would help low-income people,” Hoskins said.
Hoskins has long supported Youth Advocates Resource Network, a nonprofit organization her mother established.
“She was always that person in the community toting people’s kids to give them something new,” Hoskins said. Her mother is retired from the state Department of Education, and Hoskins’ grandmother, who raised Gill, was a teacher.
Broadening students’ horizons is a passion of hers and her mother’s, Hoskins said.
“If you don’t get out of a community, you don’t have a clue what the world has to offer,” she said.
Another chapter of Hoskins’ story is starting the Conway Bridal Fair, which she ran for about 20 years before turning it over to the River Valley & Ozark Edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which renamed it the Conway Bridal Show.
When Hoskins came back from Philadelphia, she taught modeling classes, and she started the bridal fair as a way for her students to get modeling experience, she said. It became a fundraiser for YARN’s summer trips and programs.
Hoskins, who works in community outreach for the U.S. Department of Justice, still participates with YARN and plans to go to Washington, D.C., with the group in the spring.
Hoskins and her husband of 21 years, Archie Hoskins, lived on her grandmother’s property in Mayflower until 2009, when she bought a home in The River Plantation in Mayflower. Their home received damage in the April tornado, she said, but was repaired. “We’re fine,” she said.
Last year, Hoskins went on a search for a book that represented her memories of Christmas at her grandmother’s house on the farm in Mayflower. She went to see friend Garbo Hearne, who owns Pyramid Art, Books & Custom Framing and Hearne Fine Art in Little Rock.
“I said, ‘I want a book something like The Night Before Christmas, but more like I grew up,’” Hoskins said she told Hearne. She wanted it to be fun for kids and also talk about the birth of Jesus.
“After I whined and fussed and griped, she said, ‘Maria, just go write the book,’” Hoskins said. One night, after everyone else was in bed, Hoskins said she started thinking about it, and she was filled with happiness. “Mama always made Christmas fun, but being at Grandma’s house was special fun,” she said.
As a present for her mother, Hoskins wrote her memories about Christmas on the farm at her grandmother’s house in a rhyming format.
“That’s how it just came to me,” Hoskins said.
Friends introduced Hoskins to UALR art student Lauren Crymes of Conway, who wanted to illustrate a book. Crymes’ first drawing for the cover surprised Hoskins at how accurately she had drawn her grandmother’s home, down to an old ice box on the front porch. Hoskins hadn’t given her any information.
“I said, ‘Wow, you’re already reading my mind.’ A few tweaks were made, and Crymes illustrated Christmas Night on the Farm, which Hoskins self-published through C&V 4 Seasons Publishing.
One drawing depicts Hoskins and her sister, Jeannie, when they were little girls. Jeannie died in 2009 at age 56 of breast cancer.
Hoskins said her grandmother’s house would be cold, and they snuggled under quilts in bed at night.
“We had so many quilts on us we could hardly move,” she said.
“The children snuggled under quilts three deep, giggling and laughing as they fell to sleep,” she wrote.
The old braided rugs and wood stove are depicted, as well as angels and Jesus’ birth.
“My mother was delighted,” Hoskins said. Hoskins said although the story is based on her family, she deliberately didn’t use their names.
“This is not just my memory,” Hoskins said. “People can associate with the old farmhouses and the wood stoves and the braided rugs. They pick it up, and they start talking about their memories. They start talking about their parents and grandparents. It transcends from me. A lot of people have memories of that era, of that time.”
She wrote in the book’s foreword: “As the author of this book, I pray each reader gets a glimpse of how happy life was on a little farm in Mayflower, Arkansas, during the celebration of Christmas — with not many presents but with a whole lot of love.”
Hoskins was scheduled to read to students at Mayflower Elementary School’s Literacy Night, and she will read her book at 7 p.m. Thursday at a Christmas party at the Faulkner County Library.
“When I can talk to children and students, I encourage them. I never saw this coming, right? Kids have vivid imaginations. I say, if I can write the story, they can write the story. They have lots of stories, and I encourage them to start writing their stories. There’s a story in all of us.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.