Stanley Russ, who served as an Arkansas state senator from Conway for a quarter century, died Thursday (Jan. 5) at the age of 86 after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
Russ served from 1975 through 2000, becoming the Senate’s third most senior member, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. He was chair of the Joint Budget Committee and served as president pro tempore from 1995 to 1997, on a few occasions serving as governor when the governor and lieutenant governor were both out of state. On one of those occasions in 1996, he created the Medal of Honor Commission that later built the Capitol’s Medal of Honor Memorial. Public, private and higher education were focuses of his legislative work.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, who represents the district Russ once represented, said he had been told by a member of the family that Russ died peacefully at home with his family around him and his granddaughter singing the hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”
Russ filled a vacancy in the Senate’s 21st District after Sen. Guy Jones of Conway was removed after being convicted of income tax invasion. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Jones and influential Conway County Sheriff Marlin Hawkins supported one of Russ’ two opponents. Bill Sanson of Enola. Sanson won the most votes in the Democratic primary on Jan. 2, 1975. In the runoff, Russ organized poll watchers, including current Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, to monitor polling stations in Conway County. Hawkins arrested several of the poll watchers and harassed others, and one of the Conway County boxes was found to have more votes counted than the number of people who voted. Still, Russ won the nomination and defeated his token Republican opponent. Among Russ’ legislative accomplishments was Act 114 of 1977, which clarified the rights of poll watchers.
Russ never again had an opponent in a state legislative race, though he did lose in Democratic primaries for U.S. House of Representative seats in 1978 and 1984.
On July 15, 1996, Russ helped persuade Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to resign his office or face impeachment. Tucker had tendered his resignation after being convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud charges but rescinded that resignation shortly before his successor, then-Lt. Governor Mike Huckabee, was to assume the office. After the meeting, Tucker wrote a letter to Russ informing him of his resignation.
Russ was honored by the Assembly of State Governmental Employees in 1981 as one of the Ten Outstanding State Legislators in the United States. He also was honored for Distinguished Service in 1985 by the Municipal League of Arkansas. The University of Central Arkansas, where he had attended college before graduating from the University of Arkansas, named its Department of Mass Communication building “Stanley Russ Hall” in 2001. The university awarded him an honorary doctor of public service degree in 2004.
Russ was born Aug. 31, 1930, in Conway and graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1952. He served in the U.S. Army from 1952-54 and then remained in the National Guard until 1961, serving as company commander of the Guard unit in Morrilton. After leaving the Army, he became a life insurance salesman, his profession throughout his time in the Senate. He also raised cattle. He and his late wife, Nina, had two children.
Rapert first connected with Russ after Rapert had written a letter to the editor as a college student extolling the importance of voting, and Russ sent him a handwritten note, which Rapert has kept until this time.
Rapert said in an interview that Russ would encourage him to take strong stands and be willing to be criticized.
“To be honest with you, there’s no one else in my entire community whose opinion mattered more to me than Stanley Russ’ approval, that I was doing the job that he felt was worthy of the position,” he said.
Rapert, an evangelist, said he preached at Calvary Baptist Church in Conway about a month ago, and Russ was there and closed the service in prayer. Not long afterwards, Russ received his diagnosis, Rapert said.
Rapert said he visited Russ at his home, where Russ from his bed told him, “You just tell people that I am totally at peace, and I’m happy and there’s no problems.” He then looked at Rapert in the eye and said, “Just tell them I’m tickled to death,” and then laughed and said either, “No pun intended” or “Pun intended.”
“He’s the kind of man that God made only one time,” Rapert said.
Services are being handled by Roller-McNutt Funeral Home. The obituary has not yet been published.