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Partee time in Magnolia: "Cal" Partee made his money in oil, lumber and banking.

It's the day after the Preakness Stakes, 15 days after the Kentucky Derby.

For thoroughbred racing fans, the "now" horse is Pine Bluff, an Arkansas-owned colt who captured the second jewel of the Triple Crown at Baltimore's Pimlico Racecourse.

Kentucky Derby winner Lil E. Tee, another Arkansas-owned horse, finished fifth.

At Little Rock Regional Airport, William C. "Cal" Partee, the 82-year-old owner of Lil E. Tee, is in the baggage claim area, hoping his luggage has made it from Baltimore.

A long drive back home to Magnolia awaits.

The fanfare from the Kentucky Derby has died. Or so he thinks.

"Hey, Mr. Partee," a man yells.

Could he please get an autograph?

A 10-year-old boy also recognizes Mister Cal, no doubt from television. He, too, wants a signature.

Not bad for a modest, publicity-shy lumber and oil man from south Arkansas.

"I was tickled to death," Partee says. "There have been hundreds of people writing and calling. Before -- nobody."

Sitting in his office at the Partee Flooring Mill off U.S. 82 in Magnolia, Partee dismisses the Preakness with a shrug that comes from four decades in the racing business.

He's still the owner of the Kentucky Derby winner.

"He won the race he wanted to win," says a longtime friend.

Of course, in Magnolia, everyone seems to be a longtime friend of Mister Cal's.

When a reception was held in his honor at First National Bank of Magnolia, where Partee is the chairman, more than 1,000 admirers showed up to shake Mister Cal's hand and take a peek at the Kentucky Derby winner's trophy.

Partee was scheduled to stay for two hours. He ended up staying for five.

When the results of several hip surgeries made it difficult to stand, he pulled up a chair.

The folks kept coming.

And Cal Partee kept saying thanks.

"It's a case of hometown boy does good," says Jim Arnold, a Magnolia businessman.

"It's the single most beneficial thing to happen to Columbia County and Magnolia ... since I don't know when," says Claude Wilson Jr., a senior vice president at the bank.

Humble Beginnings

Partee was born in 1910 at Stephens, about 18 miles north of Magnolia on U.S. 79 in Ouachita County.

His mother died shortly after his birth. Partee was raised by his father, a prominent doctor who rode a horse to make house calls.

The doctor's son was a natural athlete, a three-sport star at Stephens High School who earned a football scholarship to what is now Henderson State University at Arkadelphia.

Cal had been at Henderson six weeks when his father died. Partee already was struggling with an injury, which was keeping him on the sidelines. So he returned home.

He quickly gravitated toward the lumber business. His brother-in-law owned a sawmill at Emerson, just north of the Louisiana border in Columbia County. Partee and a friend formed a partnership to haul logs to the brother-in-law's mill.

Partee and his partner eventually started their own mill near Emerson. In 1935, Partee sold his half of the mill for $600.

After three months away from the lumber business, Partee and a new partner purchased a mill for the same $600. Partee was anxious to make that mill profitable by outworking the competition. His partner had other ideas.

"I was working 18 hours a day, and he was leaving as soon as the whistle blew," Partee says. "I bought him out. Gave him $600. Funny, all those deals went for $600 ... That won't do much these days."

Lumber was good to Cal Partee.

He added a mill in tiny Spotville and another at McNeil. Both towns are just outside Magnolia in Columbia County. The mill at McNeil got Partee flush.

In 1938, he sold the complex for $60,000. At the time, it seemed like all the money in the world.

Partee was rich, but he had tax problems.

Shortly after the sale, he traveled to Magnolia and found a lawyer.

"Call this tax man and tell him I've got $60,000," Partee told the attorney.

The lawyer obliged.

Federal and state collectors came looking for their cuts.

"The federal man came and said, 'Cal, I told you to keep books,'" Partee says. "I kept my books in my pocket. That was my books."

But he paid the Internal Revenue Service and still had money to take a vacation to Palm Beach, Fla., and Havana. He also bought his wife, Chrystelle, a new Ford.

The first day she drove the automobile, a truck sideswiped it and ruined the paint job.

Chrystelle came home to her husband crying.

Partee told her not to worry. He would fix it or get her a new Ford.

He was confident the money was not going to run out.

It never did.

Nice Tip

Within 10 years, Partee was the owner of Partee Lumber Co. and Partee Flooring Co.

More importantly, he had begun to smell oil.

"That's where he made his big money," says a former associate of Partee's at First National Bank.

In 1947, Partee invested in a well just east of Stephens. Once Partee sold his share a year after the first gusher, he was a millionaire.

He still has oil and timber investments.

And he still comes to work every day as senior partner at Partee Flooring, which employs about 100 people. The company purchases rough-cut timber and produces hardwood flooring. It then sells the flooring wholesale.

Kentucky Derby fever reached a peak at the mill when Lil E. Tee finished first.

Many employees, on Partee's heart-felt recommendation, had placed some of their hard-earned money on the colt in early wagering at Las Vegas, Nev., weeks before the Run for the Roses.

That was when Lil E. Tee was at an overly generous 70-1.

Two days after the victory, Partee's employees took out a full-page ad in the Magnolia Banner-News. It read, "Good Guys Sometimes Do Finish First ... We Love You. The Guys & Gals At The Mill."

In addition to his flooring company, Partee has 72,534 shares (3.4 percent) of the common stock of First United Bancshares Inc., the bank holding company that owns First National Bank of Magnolia, First National Bank of El Dorado, City National Bank of Fort Smith and Merchants & Planters Bank of Camden.

Partee owns more shares than any other individual stockholder.

His son, Cal Jr., is a partner in the flooring mill and a director at First National Bank of Magnolia.

Son-in-law Larry Burrow is the plant manager at Partee Flooring Mill and a director at the Magnolia bank.

Kept in a vault at First National Bank of Magnolia -- just off the town square -- is the silver Kentucky Derby winner's trophy. It is one of the most valuable trophies in sports, a prize in itself.

To Partee, though, it is the symbol of a 38-year sentimental journey.

He picks up a letter he received from the company that insures the trophy.

"There," he says, nonchalantly pointing to the figure $57,000. "That's what it's worth, I guess."

Big Money

It has been reported that Partee is worth between $10 million and $15 million.

Old-timers at Magnolia scoff at those figures.

Multiply that by about 10 and you would be closer, one native says.

How much is Cal Partee worth?

"I doubt if he knows," says another friend.

One acquaintance recalls the time he was visiting Partee at the flooring mill office and the telephone rang.

It was the late W.R. "Witt" Stephens of Prattsville and Little Rock calling.

They talked about -- what else? -- making a deal.

"He's that kind of money," the man says. "Big money."

Friends say that when Stephens died Dec. 2, Partee grieved deeply.

Perhaps it was a sense of his own mortality that made Partee so grateful to win this Kentucky Derby at age 82. After all, he said, he had only "15 or 20 more years" to win one.

"It's nice for someone to go through life and get something they've always wanted," Wilson says.

Wilson has known Partee since he was a child playing with Cal Jr.

Like many of the 12,000 residents of Magnolia, Wilson feels indebted to Partee. Partee is directly or indirectly responsible for three of the biggest companies in town -- American Fuel Cell & Coated Fabrics Co., Alumax and Unit Structures Inc.

Partee built the 25,000-SF facility that eventually would house Alumax, a division of Amax Inc. of New York that manufactures bath enclosures and aluminum interior door frames.

His efforts helped lure Amfuel, which manufactures containers for water and fuel, and Unit Structures, which manufactures straight and curved beams, park shelters and pedestrian bridges.

The three companies employ almost 1,500 people.

"People like Mr. Partee have helped build the industrial base," says Lester Hutchins, executive director of the Magnolia Chamber of Commerce. "... Our eggs are not in one basket."

Cal's Place

The modest, wooden structure that houses the Partee family's operations evolves into a thoroughbred racing museum once you step through the screen door, past a couple desks and into Cal Partee's office.

Black-and-white photographs of Partee's earliest victories, including his first with the colt Winning Count in 1954, adorn the walls.

His desk is cluttered with racing memorabilia, a home-made Lil E. Tee cap in the Partee colors of orange and white and a stack of papers from a first-grade class at a Magnolia elementary school. The students, including Partee's granddaughter, Cecile, wrote about Lil E. Tee's victory.

One girl even drew a picture of her favorite horse.

"They all did great," Partee says.

Behind his desk is a banner that reads, "Our Very Own ... 1992 Derby Winner."

On a table in the hall, Partee keeps three large trophies from three victories in the Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky.

One of the trophies is inscribed with the name Lil E. Tee.

Another bears the name At the Threshold, the sire of Lil E. Tee that once was considered Partee's best horse.

Until May 2, 1992.

That was the day Lil E. Tee left what was supposedly a racing superstar, Arazi, in his dust to win the 118th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

It was one of Partee's grandest moments.

He compares it to hitting a big oil well.

"That's as hard to come by as a Kentucky Derby winner," he says.

Partee made the most of his first Derby winner. He cashed more than $8,500 worth of exacta tickets when Casual Lies, another long shot, finished behind 17-1 Lil E. Tee.

At Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, where Partee has raced for almost four decades, patrons have been known to follow Mister Cal to the betting windows in hopes of overhearing his wagers.

He has a reputation for picking winners. No matter the business.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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