Williams Baptist students to operate The Hotel Rhea

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published by Talk Business & Politics, and it was written by George Jared.

It’s one of the most notorious and unusual deaths recorded in Lawrence County. Businessman John A. Rhea was riding his horse near Stewart Park on Feb. 15, 1893, when both he and his horse were struck and killed by a train. No one knows if it was an accident, a suicide or something more sinister. Nobody would ever know for sure.

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Rhea and his horse were buried together near the park.

His wife, Lizzie, honored his family name by building The Hotel Rhea in 1904 even though she had remarried by that time. It burned in 1916 and the building was used for many other purposes in the decades that followed. Walnut Ridge businessman Charles Snapp and his wife, Jackie, bought the building in 2012 and restored The Rhea to its original appointments.

The historic building will now have a dual purpose — it will help educate future business leaders.

The Hotel Rhea will soon be under the management of students at Williams Baptist University (WBU). Through the university’s new student-work initiative known as Williams Works, students will manage and operate the historic hotel in downtown Walnut Ridge. WBU recently signed a lease agreement with Snapp Family, LLC.

“Charles, Jackie and Carrie Mae Snapp are longtime friends and supporters of WBU, and they have made available a great opportunity for our students to work and get ‘real world’ work experience in the process,” said Dr. Stan Norman, president of WBU. “The Hotel Rhea provides a welcome addition to our Williams Works program and strengthens our connection to downtown Walnut Ridge. We are very excited about this initiative.”

The Rhea is now a boutique hotel with four large suites which were renovated to match the history of the facility.

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Jackie Snapp, who has managed the hotel since her family acquired it, came up with the idea to have WBU students run the facility after reading about the Williams Works initiative. Jackie is a WBU graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business and she recalls the impact Williams had during a difficult period of her life.

“At 34 years old, I found myself divorced and a single mother of two. I was more than overwhelmed by other institutions. I went to Williams, and Dr. Swaim took me by the hand and got me where I needed to go. I was on my way,” she said, recalling the assistance of Dr. Jerol Swaim, a former academic dean who went on to serve as president of the school for 17 years.

“Williams was the best decision I made. It gave me the education I needed, but most importantly it gave me the self-confidence I lacked.”

Her husband, Charles, is mayor of Walnut Ridge and excited to see WBU’s increasing presence in the downtown area.

“We grew up in a time when downtowns thrived and we understand the need for revitalization of those areas. Industry is changing, and quality of life factors, like a vibrant downtown, are the future,” he said. “Youthful direction helps establish the future of our community, not to mention the insight youthful minds bring, and that’s the future in itself.”

Charles’ sister, Carrie Mae Snapp, also has long-standing connections to Williams, where she taught oral communication and drama in the 1980s. She said she is very pleased to extend her family’s connection to the university.

“Having taught at Williams, I understand how they work to prepare students for life after graduation. As an instructor, I was invested in the students’ education but also their work after graduation,” she said. “To have an opportunity that allows WBU students hands-on experience in a real business operation will add a level of training well beyond the normal classroom. I’m proud to be a part of continuing education for Williams and for continued growth and revitalization for Walnut Ridge.”

WBU announced its Williams Works initiative last fall and will welcome its first students into the program this fall. Students selected for Williams Works will work 16 hours per week during the school year, and in exchange they will have their tuition and fees covered. Some will also work full-time in the summer months to cover their room and board expenses, giving them the opportunity to graduate debt-free.

Brayden Brewer, a senior from Piggott has been hired as student manager of the Hotel Rhea. As a finance major, Brewer has been steeped in business courses at WBU, and he plans to call upon that knowledge in running the hotel. He will be assisted by Williams Works students, who will tend to cleaning the hotel and other tasks as needed.

“Brayden is a fine student and a great choice to help us launch our management of the Hotel Rhea. We believe he will receive invaluable, real world experience, as will the Williams Works students who assist him. That is just one of the many benefits of our works initiative, and we hope to have many more opportunities like this one in the years to come,” Norman said.

The hotel is open again for reservations after being closed for several months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are taking all necessary steps to assure the rooms are thoroughly disinfected and safe for all guests before every stay,” Norman said.

The WBU president noted that as a boutique hotel, the Hotel Rhea offers guests a no-contact reservation and check-in system, which should be reassuring to guests during the pandemic.

For the Snapp family, renovating and operating the hotel has been a labor of love, but Jackie said she is now happy to hand over management to students from her alma mater.

“I’m in awe at the growth WBU has experienced since my graduation and so look forward to watching the Williams Works program evolve,” she said. “I am honored to be able to give back to Williams. They gave me so much.”

Those wanting to book a room or get more information can visit the hotel’s website at thehotelrhea.com.

To read the article on Talk Business & Politics, click here.

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