Former Sebastian County Judge Bud Harper dies

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 299 views 

William R. “Bud” Harper, the former Sebastian County Judge and former director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management under Gov. Mike Huckabee, passed away Wednesday morning (Mar. 28).

He was 81.

The Fort Smith Police Department filed this report on Harper’s passing.

“At approximately 11:50am, Cpl. Chitwood responded to 10800 St. Anthony Court, reference a deceased male. Once he arrived, he learned retired County Judge, William Raymond “Bud” Harper, had passed away from natural causes. Judge Harper had been out mowing his yard and collapsed.  His wife found him shortly after he collapsed and called for EMS. Paramedics and First Responders responded to the location, but were unsuccessful at resuscitating him. Judge Harper had been experiencing some minor health complications lately. At this time, it is suspected Judge Harper passed away from a heart attack. He was 81 years old.”

Harper, who served for 16 years as Sebastian County Judge, was director of Arkansas’ emergency services on Sept. 11, 2001. He noted his experience during that time, including a visit to ground zero in New York City, in an essay written for The City Wire.

“Seeing the charred and scorched soil that held the remains of the hundreds of souls is indescribable. I could not hold back the tears. The reality of the horror and suffering touched my heart. May God forbid this ever happening again!” Harper noted. “I returned to our Emergency Operation Center with a determination that I would do everything within reason to prevent such an unthinkable thing from ever happening again.”

Harper was a 1957 graduate — bachelor’s degree in business administration — of Arkansas Tech University and was inducted into the university’s Hall of Distinction in 1999.

In 1979 he began the first of two terms on the Sebastian County Quorum Court, and was elected to the post of County Judge in 1983.

“A lot of things people will never understand or know have Bud Harper’s footprint. But those who do, appreciate him. A lot of people knew him and knew what he did,” said Mat Pitsch, director of the Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority, and a candidate for the Arkansas House of Representatives.

Harper was serving as the campaign chairman for Pitsch, who is running for the District 76 House seat against incumbent Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith.

“But this, Bud, transcends that (politics),” Pitsch said. “Bud was involved in every aspect of this community. . … He was a great man.”

Part of Harper’s community involvement included representing the region in the late 1990s during the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC). That process saw the conversion of Fort Chaffee from a regular Army base to a National Guard base. The conversion also included the transfer of more than 7,000 acres to what would become the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority.

Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders praised Harper for dedicating his life to serving the public.

“The City of Fort Smith will miss Bud Harper. He dedicated his life to public service,” Sanders noted in a statement. “As Sebastian County judge and later as director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, Bud worked hard to make good decisions for every citizen in the county and the state.”

Sanders said he would miss seeing Harper each Friday at the Fort Smith Noon Exchange Club and Sundays at church.

“Bud always had a smile and a ready laugh. Our thoughts and prayers are with Jo and Bud’s family,” Sanders said.

Fort Smith City Administrator Ray Gosack credited Harper with greatly improving the city’s emergency action plans.

Gosack noted: “Bud Harper was the architect of the city’s emergency management plan that was updated following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We knew we needed to make some changes across multiple layers of government and oversight locally, and Bud was the logical choice. His experience as Sebastian County judge and as the director of the state’s department of emergency management gave us knowledge and expertise as we worked to write a plan that can be implemented at various levels. Bud brought his professional insights and wisdom to every meeting. He also brought that trademark smile, never losing sight of the important nature of the work we were doing. Our condolences go out to Jo Harper and to all of Bud’s family and his many friends.”

Harper was married to Dr. Joan Neighbors Harper, and they have two children.