Perryville man leads Arkansas Goat Festival, quilting retreats

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Dave Lowe of Perryville is a quilting-retreat organizer who doesn’t sew, a goat-festival guru who has never owned a goat and a juggler who earned a living performing.

It’s a far cry from his original career as a banker.

“That’s probably my philosophy on life — think outside the box, and don’t restrict yourself to doing what somebody else, or society, tells you [to do]. Do what’s right for you,” he said.

Lowe, a Louisiana native, moved to Perryville in 1995 to volunteer at Heifer Ranch, and he just finished coordinating the Arkansas Goat Festival this month. It was wildly successful for the fourth year, he said, although this was Lowe’s first year in charge.

“It’s fun; it’s fun,” he said.

He became friends with Sarah French when he moved to the small town, and she had the idea for a goat festival to boost the economy of Perryville. The first one took place in 2016, and French expected 500 people, but 1,200 showed up.

“I was her right-hand man,” Lowe said. He created the website and helped sell T-shirts. This year, she bowed out of the leadership role, and he took over. He estimates that 8,000 people attended the Oct. 5 event in Perryville City Park.

His role at Heifer Ranch when he came from Louisiana wasn’t working with goats; he was inside, doing computer work, mostly.

“I wasn’t a livestock person or a garden person,” Lowe said. “I helped them set up databases and just fairly basic computer kind of stuff. Then I did some education stuff, leading field trips, working in the visitor center and working in the gift shop. The last eight years, I was just an occasional volunteer. I built a house down the road from the ranch.”

He grew up in Mansfield, Louisiana, where his father was a banker and his mother was a dance teacher.

Lowe, 61, said banking was “the last thing” he thought he wanted to do, but he went to college at Northeast Louisiana University, now the University of Louisiana at Monroe, and majored in psychology and started working on a master’s degree in business.

Right out of school, he became a bank examiner for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for about three years; then he went to work for a bank in his hometown for his father’s competitor. His father was retired at the time.

In 1991, Lowe had a life-changing experience. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

“I had a numb tongue, and it took a couple of different doctors and a couple of months before they figured out what it was,” he said. “I was 33 at the time, so not something I was expecting.”

The good news was, the tumor was an acoustic neuroma, which is by nature benign, he said.

He underwent about a 10-hour brain surgery in Shreveport, Louisiana. This was before the surgery was done with lasers, he said.

“[The doctors] told me they were 95 percent sure I’d lose my hearing in my left ear, and they were right,” he said.

His only sibling, a brother, Steve, died of a brain tumor five years ago at age 59.

“They were totally different kinds of tumors,” Lowe said. “It seems like a crazy coincidence, just two siblings.”

Lowe went back to his banking job for a little less than three more years after he recuperated. He said he had an “early midlife crisis,” partly because of his health scare, and he left in 1994 after 12 years at the bank.

“I got burnt out and quit and moved to New York City,” he said.

Boring banker life banished.

“I spent one winter there and realized New York wasn’t my kind of place in the wintertime. The next year, that’s when I found Heifer and started volunteering in the wintertime and going back to New York in the summertime,” he said.

In New York, he did temp work at banks and various places. The last 12 years he was there, he was a juggler in Central Park.

He learned to juggle “just for fun” when he was about 20.

“I’d always wanted to be a street performer and didn’t have the nerve — and I was a banker. I decided to give it a try one day, and with trial and error, I realized I could make money,” Lowe said.

He juggles three clubs at a time, although he hasn’t performed in years.

“I’m not a very good juggler. My gimmick was that I was a statue until they gave me money; then I would juggle for them. I learned that the more attention I could draw, the more money I made, and by getting them to give me the money first, I wasn’t wearing myself out,” Lowe said.

“I’m actually a better statue than I am a juggler,” he said, laughing.

Lowe performed two days a week in the park and earned enough money to live on.

“I paid my rent and bought my groceries. I’m a thrifty sort of guy. I live pretty simply. I had a tiny little basement apartment in the East Village, which was by New York standards cheap. I volunteered the rest of the time,” he said.

“New York is actually an easy place to entertain yourself for very little money. I would get free tickets to stuff through the organization, or I would help at a benefit for an organization, so I was getting entertainment through various ways without spending a lot of money.”

One of the organizations he volunteered with the longest was God’s Love We Deliver.

“At the time, it was delivering meals to people with AIDS. Through the years, as the AIDS crisis declined, it expanded to people with serious illnesses.

“I would chop vegetables every Thursday night,” he said.

Another organization he volunteered with was one that provided tickets to various events and shows for nursing homes, senior centers and the like to get the residents out to socialize.

Volunteers would pick up tickets and meet people at the event to deliver the tickets, “so I got to go to the shows,” he said.

Lowe’s love of volunteering was what brought him to Perryville through Heifer Ranch.

In spring 2016, “I came up with the idea of putting on some kind of retreat at the ranch on the weekends to help their business,” he said. “Most of the ranch’s business was educational groups. They’d be there a week, Sunday night to Friday morning. Not a lot were staying in the lodges and eating in the dining room.”

When he tossed out the idea of holding a retreat, “one of the first things somebody suggested was quilting,” he said.

Lowe did research online, “and I realized there are a lot of quilting guilds in Arkansas. I figured that would be a good way to communicate with people,” he said. He sent emails and got a good response.

The first quilting retreat was in 2016, Friday through Sunday, which included two nights’ lodging and six meals.

“I provide them a 6-foot table, a rolling chair and a power strip. The rest is all them. They come, bring their sewing machines, all their quilting material,” he said.

“They do haul stuff,” he said. “When they open up the back [of their vehicles], I’m scared stuff is just going to start falling out, it’s so packed.

“It’s not like a quilting bee. … They’re just all doing their own thing. Some know each other when they get here, and in other cases, they’re total strangers when they get here.”

People want to come to a quilting retreat for a variety of reasons, Lowe said.

“Some want to have the space to work and leave it out all weekend, as opposed to spreading out on their dining-room table and having to clear it off for supper. For some, it’s the social aspect, getting away from responsibilities,” he said.

“For some, it’s getting away from their family,” Lowe said, laughing.

When he suggested a couples quilting retreat early on, some of the women balked.

“They said, ‘No, we come here to get away from husbands; we don’t want them with us,’” Lowe said.

He has had a couple where both the husband and wife were quilters, and another time, the husband came with his wife and just read and walked around the ranch.

Lowe held four retreats the first year and has held four or five in subsequent years.

Then in 2017, he started adding goat-yoga retreats. Goat yoga is one of the activities at the Arkansas Goat Festival. The goats at his retreats were provided by Heifer, but the ranch is transitioning away from its education portion and won’t have goats.

Lowe does yoga, which he started only after the goat-yoga retreats. He paid instructors to come in and lead the yoga.

“People seemed to enjoy it, but it never took off like the quilting did,” he said.

Lowe said he won’t have any more goat-yoga retreats.

During his recent quilting retreat, he had 27 people, including 10 from Memphis, Tennessee. They paid extra to arrive on Wednesday afternoon.

The quilting retreat in November is full, and it will be the last one at Heifer Ranch. In the spring, the retreats will be at the Ferncliff Camp & Conference Center in Ferndale. Space is still available for those retreats, on April 3-5 and May 29-31, then in the summer, June 4-6.

His website is davesretreats.com.

Lowe donates any profits he makes from the retreats.

“The original reason [for the retreats] was to help the ranch, and obviously, moving them from the ranch is not going to help the ranch. I priced it so I wouldn’t lose money.

“When I would get big enough groups, I would make money. I decided early on that because my original intent was not to make money, any extra I would give to local nonprofits,” he said.

He has donated to Partners for Progress, a food bank in Perryville; the Single Parent Scholarship Fund; and, this fall, “I sent the 10th grade from Perryville High School to a musical at the Rep — Million Dollar Quartet.” He went along, too. “It was fun,” he said.

Lowe said his goal isn’t to grow the quilting retreats because he doesn’t want to be tied down. He spends his summers in Arkansas and his winters in Puerto Vallarta “in a cheap hotel, eating cheap food and being warm for the winter,” he said.

“I’ve always traveled a good bit — probably more so in my banking days, when I had a little more money to travel on,” Lowe said. “I still like to go a lot.

“I like my freedom.”

And freedom can’t be found in a box.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-5671 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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