A change of perspective: Scroggin reflects one year after tornado

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

Life has changed in many ways for Preston Scroggin since the devastating EF-4 tornado that obliterated his home and ranch on South Marshall Road in Vilonia on April 27, 2014.

But besides the heartbreaking losses — the home he’d lived in with his family as a teenager, all his fences and barns, 121 head of cattle and his “old yellow tomcat” Tom — some of the changes have been positive.

“The tornado brought us perspective,” said Scroggin, 48, a fifth-generation cattle rancher, former state representative, Faulkner County judge and executive director of the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission. “It brought everybody together. All too often, we don’t talk to our neighbors, not because we don’t like them but because we’re too busy. Our little neighborhood has become very close.

“I’m much more humble. It gives you a new perspective. I don’t get all bent out of shape about goings-on in the world anymore. I was lucky Mom and Dad survived; the tornado went 50 feet from their house. I’m just thankful I still have them.

“It makes me appreciate life.”

His wife, Lori Ross Scroggin, whom he married May 21, said he handled the turmoil well.

“He just buckled down, put his head down and plowed right through it,” she said. “He didn’t rest very much. He worked seven days a week and still does just to get things completed.”

Sixteen people in Pulaski, Faulkner and White counties died of tornado-related injuries from the storm, which particularly devastated Mayflower and Vilonia and followed another deadly tornado in Vilonia in 2011.

Scroggin was with Lori, then his fiancée, with her family in Center Ridge when the storm hit. His ranch-style home, built in the mid-1970s, was the headquarters for the family farming business. As the operation grew, his parents, Don and Doris, acquired another farm north of Vilonia, and they moved there. Preston stayed in the old place.

But when he and Lori returned from Center Ridge that fateful day, there was nothing left but the slab.

“The south farm was completely totaled,” he said.

Everything was gone — clothes, furniture, papers, family photographs and other heirlooms and one-third of his cattle herd.

A year later, the house has been replaced, fences are up, five of seven barns are rebuilt, livestock are buried and his parents’ home has been repaired.

Over the months, Scroggin marked small victories.

“You get a field cleaned up of debris; getting water back on, getting electricity back in the barn is a big deal,” he said. “Just little, small victories every day. You just keep plugging. Every day you get up and there’s plenty to do.”

The cleanup included controlled burns of fields that allowed for debris to be visible. At press time, he said, they were close to being back in farming mode instead of cleanup.

“You get the big stuff done, like building two or three miles of fence, but it then takes another week to take care of all the little things,” he said.

Lori said she had noticed a change in her husband.

“He constantly talks about how he doesn’t need material things,” she said. “His wardrobe even now is very small. He’s got three or four pair of jeans, and he says he’s got what he needs.

“It’s just a realization that material things can be gone in an instant, and he’s got what he needs. I don’t see him attaching significance to material things. He had all those family heirlooms in his house, and they’re all gone.”

The couple had been engaged for a year but were waiting on an annulment before they could be married in the Catholic church.

His mailbox, like everything else, had been blown away. A few days after the storm, a friend replaced it.

“We put it up that Monday night, and the paperwork for the annulment showed up that Wednesday,” Scroggin said. “We’d been waiting on that for eight or nine months.”

Since their marriage, they’ve lived in Lori’s home in Conway but plan to build a new home on the north farm. The house on the south farm is a ranch house.

Their combined family includes his daughter, Morgan, 20, studying agricultural marketing at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M; and her daughters Taylor, 21, who will graduate this spring from the University of Arkansas; Rachel, 19, a UofA student; and Natalie, 13, an eighth-grader at St. Joseph.

Following Asa Hutchinson’s election as governor, Scroggin was replaced as executive director of the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission. Since then, he has been farming full-time.

“I’m proud to be there and kind of enjoying being out of the public eye,” he said. “I’m enjoying retirement. I’m going to kick back and do what I’ve done my whole life — farm, raise cattle and keep it all together.”

He’s considering adding fruits and vegetables to his cattle ranch.

“I’ve always raised a garden, but I’m thinking about doing a little more with that, probably within the next two years,” he said.

Lori said things seemed to have a way of working out.

“That was the perfect position for him at that time, but now with the change in leadership for the state, maybe it’s time that he’s not there,” she said. “Now he is able to focus all his energy on the farm.

“You can tell there’s a lightness to him. He’s very invigorated by his work on the farm and with his brother and his parents.”

Scroggin said he didn’t foresee a return to public service any time soon.

“I’m enjoying myself way too much,” he said. “I’m just tickled to death and proud to be here.”