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Islands in the stream

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Islands in the stream

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Ronnie Dedman knew his wife, Margaret (Preston) Dedman, as a woman of singular skills from the very first time he set eyes on her. “This church in Little Rock invited me as a representative of AT&T and Margaret as a representative of Arkla Gas and they invited the people of Entergy there to come in and talk about our companies,” Ronnie said. “They had me and the guy from Entergy there just as cover. They were really after Margaret and Arkla Gas because I think they had just raised rates.”

 “We were up front on this panel and it didn’t take us long to realize what they were trying to accomplish in that church. But I’m going to tell you what I saw from Margaret: I said what I said, the guy at Entergy said what he said, then it was her time and you could just see them licking their chops, waiting to tear into her. Margaret said, ‘Before I talk to you all about what I’m going to talk to you about, will y’all pray with me?’  At this point in the story, Ronnie disintegrates into round, full laughter. 

“You should have seen those shoulders,” he said, at last. “Those shoulders went down and they thought, ‘Doggone it.’”

 Nothing came of that first meeting – neither from the crowd nor between Ronnie and Margaret – except a seed of interest planted, one that would cultivate as the two well-known community figures would cross paths at various events and eventually begin dating. Finally, Margaret set a hard parameter. 

“As the relationship grew, I asked him to go to church with me because I love my church,” Margaret said. “He put me off for several months. Then he called me one Sunday morning and said, ‘You didn’t call me and ask me to go to church.’ I said, ‘Why would I? You’ve been saying no for months.’ He said, ‘I’ll see you there.’ So that became a part of our relationship. We went to church together on Sundays and we are still doing that.” 

When Ronnie and Margaret describe their lives as blessed, they mean it in the literal sense, be it in their marriage of 10 years or in their respective professional lives. In turn, they have blessed others through their time and attention as mentors and examples within the wider community. In each aspect of their lives, the two exemplify how to prioritize faith, ethics and character as the building blocks to any successful venture, including marriage.

 “I would say that you should treat your spouse way better than you treat your very best friend, a friend that we really care about. Most of us have that person in our lives. Well, a spouse should be several notches above a best friend. And I think, if at all possible, making sure you share the same faith goes a long way in keeping things in order, so to speak.” 

Both Ronnie and Margaret know what a strain a high-profile career can be on a relationship, but in choosing to see their individual accomplishments as blessings, they’ve channeled their accomplishments as a means to help others, not glorify themselves. 

“I think you have to prioritize things,” Ronnie said. “I think we all recognize the importance of our jobs but you can’t forget about your family. I used to tell the people that worked for me, and I would try to do it myself, that you need to disconnect from that work world and devote some time to your family – your wife, your children, whoever. You need to just get away. Some days I was good at that and some days not.”

 If anyone deserves some grace for workaholic tendencies during his career it is Ronnie who was born in Newport and raised in Tuckerman by his mother and grandmother. Attending segregated schools until sixth grade, he had ample opportunity to develop an embittered outlook but instead was inspired by his matriarchs to strive higher through education. Following that advice, Dedman graduated from Tuckerman High School and Arkansas State University. 

During his college years, he took a part-time job with Southwestern Bell and over the next 46-plus years, rose through the ranks to become president of AT&T Arkansas in 2018, a job he held for five years until his retirement. Ed Drilling, retired senior vice president of AT&T, has known Ronnie for almost 40 years, ultimately serving as his predecessor as president. 

“Ronnie is just so steady,” Drilling said. “His is especially a really great story because he started as an operator part-time and he just worked his way up. I think that’s really a tribute to him and how he performed every job he had along the way.” 

Margaret grew up in the Oak Forest neighborhood of Little Rock, attending Little Rock public schools up through graduation from Little Rock Central High School in 1971. Despite later achieving success in public-facing roles, she said she suffered from introverted tendencies that hit home in high school and delayed her attending college.

 “I struggled a little bit when I got to Central High. I felt kind of lost,” she said. “It was a tad overwhelming going to Central, but I graduated with a decent GPA, almost a 4.0, but I delayed college because I didn’t think that I would be successful at college. So I didn’t start that until the ’80s.” 

Margaret discovered journalism while attending what is now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and after graduation took a job at the ABC affiliate in Shreveport during which time she learned to overcome her shyness. A few years later, she came back home and wrangled a job at KARK Channel 4 as a reporter. Just a few months in, management promoted her to prime time anchor.

 After a successful 10-year run as anchor, she switched to a public information role with the Arkansas Department of Education, soon followed by spokesperson stints with Arkla Gas and Arkansas Childrens, which she did until retiring eight years ago.

 “Margaret will always be recognized in Arkansas as one of the handful of Black journalists to serve as an anchor for one of the top TV stations,” said Wesley Brown, publisher of Arkansas Black Vitality magazine. “I learned in my interactions with her on the beat, she was always prepared and ready to ask tough questions. But her career after TV was just as impressive; as a spokesperson she also opened a pathway for former Black journalists in Arkansas to enter into government and the corporate world. In fact, I found a similar path to success into the corporate world because of her example.”

 In addition to their career success, both Dedmans are known for having poured into others as mentors and volunteers. 

“In my time working in the public I always gravitated to high school and lower grades. That’s where I had the most contact with people,” Margaret said. “I tried to let the children question themselves about what it is they’re really good at and what it is that they really enjoy because that is a starting point for understanding what kind of work you’ll enjoy. “

 “I think that people come to this earth with specific gifts and talents and you just need to explore what those are so that they work in your favor as a career.”

 For his part, Ronnie influenced a great number of AT&T employees and external colleagues alike during his long career, inspiring them to their own levels of achievement. Brown is among them. 

“I first got to know Ronnie when he was one of the most influential lobbyists in Arkansas as head of external, government and public affairs for AT&T,” Brown said. “For me and the few Black professionals at the state Capitol, it was Ronnie’s quiet confidence and the way that he carried himself that always impressed me. And Ronnie always had time to share his knowledge and experience with me and others who came into his path.” 

Today, the Dedmans look back on their careers and lives together with great pride and characteristic gratitude. 

“I used to tell people, ‘I’m one of the luckiest guys around.’ At some point, I realized luck had nothing to do with it. It’s all about blessings,” Ronnie said. “You just don’t know when people are watching you. Every job I had with AT&T, I didn’t go looking for the job, they came looking for me. It was all about being able to do the job, do it with my head down and they would say, ‘I think that guy might be able to do the job over here, too.’ It’s all about blessings.”

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