“Making Arkansans aware of their heritage is a means of empowering them, of giving them the tools to cast off old stereotypes.”
FAYETTEVILLE — Tom Dillard and his 35-year career as historian of all things Arkansas was perhaps best described by his boss, University of Arkansas Dean of Libraries Carolyn Allen: “He spreads knowledge like seeds, sprinkles them around to watch them grow.”
Dillard retired this month as head of the Special Collections at the UA and was honored Jan. 26 with a warm reception at University House, just off campus. In addition to his work at the UA, Dillard is best known as a creator of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, which he still serves as founding editor-in-chief, and as creator of the Richard C. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, more commonly known as the Butler Center, in Little Rock.
He’s literally a “know-it-all,” when it comes to facts, tidbits and lore about the Natural State.
Dillard began his career in 1977 as the first historian on the staff of Arkansas State Parks and became head of UA Special Collections in 2004. The department is the leading academic archival repository in the state, containing huge research collections of manuscripts, historic photos, books, periodical materials and more.
A growing number of materials have been made available online under Dillard’s charge. They include projects on civil rights in Arkansas, Fayetteville history, the late Sen. J. William Fulbright. One of the more recent high-profile projects managed by Dillard was the recent opening of the papers of U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt.
“He’s traveled all over Arkansas, collecting dust,” Allen joked. Then on a serious note, she added, “He wants people to value the archive we’ve created.”
“Arkansas had almost neglected its heritage. There was no textbook of its history in print,” Dillard noted.
Dillard has said Arkansas’ own history is the best means for building collective self-esteem among its residents. Knowledge of history also enables them to vote more intelligently, he said.
Dillard and his wife Mary, who also retired this month, live on what they call “a farmette” in Farmington. Gardening is another of Dillard’s loves, and he said he plans to do plenty of it as he settles into retirement. He also plans to continue researching Arkansas history, and he’ll continue his longtime history column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Toward the end of the program, Allen presented Dillard with a rendering by watercolorist William McNamara. Dillard had been coveting the piece, titled “Buffalo River Near Terrapin Branch.”
At the end of his remarks, he jokingly quoted President Richard Nixon: “You won’t have old Tom Dillard to kick around here anymore.”