Obituary for Brenda Blagg

Brenda Joyce Blagg, one of the founding members and performers in the Northwest Gridiron Show, died December 14, 2022, at Fayetteville. She was 75.

From the beginning, Blagg served on the steering committee for the shows, wrote scripts and acted in the Northwest Arkansas Gridiron from 1978–1990 and from 2004–2021, continuing to offer guidance and attend rehearsals in 2022.

She also invented one of the most iconic figures in Gridiron’s half-century of performances — the homespun, backwoods Letitia Mae Stufflebeam, whom she portrayed each year — performing opposite the stoic husband, Elmer, and together creating the quintessential Ozark gothic painting. She tended to write the script for the Stufflebeams right up to show time, sneaking in jokes about political news that happened only days earlier or tweaking a line to get maximum reaction from the punchline.

Brenda as Letitia Mae Stufflebeam and Steve Voorhies as Elmer.

In 1984, when Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination amid a wide field, becoming the first Black candidate to garner votes during the nomination process, Blagg wrote a script in which Elmer surveyed the field, finding funny disqualifying reasons for each candidate. In the audience were Gov. Bill Clinton and a bevy of local and county candidates, themselves then campaigning in the Democratic primary.

At the finale, Letitia Mae said that she and Elmer were right pleased by the stands taken by this Rev. Jesse Jackson feller. “Ain’t that right, Elmer,” she said, glancing toward Elmer, who remained silent and expressionless. “That’s right,” she added.But then, she said, she and Elmer found out: “He isn’t one of us.”

The audience took in a collective breath. Clinton sank perceptibly in his front-row seat as candidates braced for what was coming. Half the cast had lined up behind slits in the backstage curtain, trying to watch the audience reaction. Then Letitia Mae added: “He’s a Baptist.”

The audience let loose a sigh of relief followed by thunderous laughter and applause.

Blagg earned a Bachelor of Arts in journalism at the University of Arkansas, where she served as editor of the student newspaper, The Arkansas Traveler, and led coverage of the second biggest news story in the university’s history, the first having been integration of the university in 1948. In November 1969, the third floor of Hill Hall caught fire. The building was home to the student newspaper and yearbook offices, the journalism department and the university’s printing presses.

Hill Hall on the University of Arkansas campus, the third floor ablaze.

Staff members stood and watched as their academic home went up in flames. Brenda spotted Charlie Sanders of The Springdale News in the crowd, and he offered to print the newspaper. She assembled her staff, and they gathered at the lobby of Futrall Hall to write, type and edit stories for the next morning and then took all the material to The Springdale News offices, publishing right on schedule.

Brenda became a reporter for The Springdale News after graduation and continued writing for its successors, The Morning News and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. She was a tireless advocate for the states Freedom of Information Act. She and Dennis Byrd organized a statewide test of the act, recruiting and training dozens of volunteers from across the state to request documents from county, city and school district officials.

Across her years as a journalist, she also wrote a weekly column — “Between the Lines” — about Arkansas politics and syndicated it to newspapers across the state.

She was an avid Razorback fan. Brenda enjoyed spending time with family, watching the news and Arkansas politics.

Blagg was born May 3, 1947, in Newport, Arkansas, to William and Juanita Johnson Blagg. She was preceded in death by her parents and one niece, Jennifer Smith.

She is survived by two sisters, Janie Blagg of Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Sondra Sue Cox (Jerry) of Jonesboro, Arkansas; three nieces, Amy Clark, Jill King and Deana McCormack; a nephew, Chad Cox; and eight grand-nieces and nephews.