Arkansas’ First Ladies Unite For A Cause

by Bill Paddack ([email protected]) 251 views 

An exhibit that is by far the most popular one at the Old State House Museum in Little Rock is in need of preservation treatment and some very familiar faces have stepped forward to help out.

The Arkansas’ First Ladies’ Gowns exhibit, which happens to be the largest exhibit of its kind outside the Smithsonian Institution, showcases gowns worn by the first ladies of Arkansas to the Inaugural Ball from 1889 to the present. A number of the gowns have been available for viewing by the public since 1955 and some are showing signs of deterioration. That’s why a number of former first ladies are working to help restore the dresses.

Each dress can cost anywhere from $12,000-$15,000 to preserve and Department of Heritage officials said that their fundraising hopes to preserve the 27 gowns currently in the exhibit. Also, a new HVAC system is needed specifically for the exhibit in order to control dust and humidity.

Current First Lady Susan Hutchinson, along with the board of directors of the Old State House Museum Associates (a nonprofit group established to support the museum), will host a lunch on the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion on Tuesday, Oct. 6, to raise funds to preserve the gowns. Individuals and organizations are invited to purchase tickets to help the cause, and Hutchinson has been joined by some of her predecessors to help bring awareness of the need as well as to promote the fundraising event and more.

Talk Business & Politics Editor-in-Chief Roby Brock recently sat down for an afternoon of conversations with four first ladies at the Governor’s Mansion to discuss the importance of the gowns exhibit from a historical and heritage perspective. The four women – Gay White, Betty Tucker, Ginger Beebe and Susan Hutchinson – shared their thoughts on why the gowns exhibit needs this major preservation effort.

“I think the people of Arkansas think it’s important. It’s the number one exhibit at the Old State House. It is the biggest draw by far,” said Gay White, whose husband Frank served as governor from 1981-83. “It’s a part of history. One of the reasons why people like it so much is it personalizes the political office of governor. It shows there is a personal side to it. It speaks to the strength of the women who were behind the governor who were a very integral part of their success.”

Betty Tucker, wife to former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who served from 1992-1996, also touched on the historical significance of the exhibit and its items.

“Having gowns from the period of time when all of the different governors were in office is a wonderful way for anyone to go and visit the museum, particularly for young people who are interested in history. To be able to see the visual representation of a period of time is very important,” she said.

“We all had a part in Arkansas history being married to the governor,” said Arkansas’ most current former first lady, Ginger Beebe. Her husband Mike served as the state’s chief executive from 2007-2015. “So many people who visit our state come to the Old State House … It’s important that we preserve these gowns. They’re treasures and they need to be restored.”

Current First Lady Susan Hutchinson said the visual history of the exhibit can take visitors to a walk back in time. “You get a sense of what was going on, what styles were, what kind of woman was she that she chose these things to wear and present herself to the public?”

Hutchinson said when she was deciding elements of her gown, she was cognizant the dress would provide insight on this period in Arkansas life.

“I knew this would be reflective of the times, reflective of me and my personality. Not to be a style for Paris, but to be a good reflection of Arkansas,” she said. “As people 100 years from now look back – I hope it will make history come alive for them, help them understand the times we were in. It has all these other consequences when people look back into history.”

The idea to collect and display the gowns of Arkansas’s first ladies originated at a 1943 fashion show held by the Arkansas Pioneers Association, featuring First Ladies Mabel Parnell, Anne Brough and Elwalda Robinson. During the 1950s, the original gown collection was sent to the LeBeouf Company of New Jersey for conservation. Since this original treatment, the first ladies’ gowns collection has been on exhibit at the museum in varying configurations.

The collection was the first exhibit to showcase Arkansas history at the Old State House Museum, debuting in 1955. The oldest gown in the collection is from 1889 and belonged to Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle, the wife of Arkansas’s 16th governor, James Philip Eagle.

When the museum reopened in 1999 after a three-year structural renovation, the current version of the gowns exhibit opened on the second floor of the west wing in cases specifically designed to minimize deterioration caused by light, dust and humidity.

Nevertheless, while the gowns have always been preserved according to the highest professional standards of the day, some deterioration with age is inevitable. During a routine survey of artifacts in 2014, Jo Ellen Maack, the museum’s curator, noticed signs of stress on certain gowns. Upon closer inspection it was determined that a textile conservator should evaluate the collection.

The museum staff worked closely with renowned textile conservator Harold Mailand of Textile Conservation Services to create a prioritized list of conservation needs for the gowns. These needs have been identified, preservation treatment has begun and the museum is redesigning the gallery in order to better interpret Arkansas first ladies.

“The Arkansas First Ladies Gowns at the Old State House Museum are, through the years, our most popular artifacts,” Bill Gatewood, the museum’s director, said.

At the event on Oct. 6, a seated lunch on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion will be followed by a special presentation in the Great Hall. Hutchinson and five of Arkansas’ former first ladies (Ginger Beebe, Janet Huckabee, Betty Tucker, Gay White and Barbara Pryor) have committed to be present for the event and will attend a special reception for table sponsors before the luncheon.

Persons interested in ticket inquiries can contact Sammye Johnston at [email protected] or (501) 664-1879.

While the gowns exhibit has drawn a bipartisan background of help, plans for the renovated attraction want to do more to interpret the impact first ladies have had on Arkansas politics, policy and culture. Each first lady has championed causes to promote and lend their names and credibility toward. Those causes include childhood immunization and health, working with seniors, children’s and adult literacy, arts and humanities, hunger relief and more.

While their husbands largely dealt with public policy and daily media interaction at the Capitol, the first ladies’ work was often underreported and underappreciated. They toiled publicly and behind-the-scenes with their efforts, while their work moved the needle for many important initiatives.

Beyond the gowns and the title of the position, here are how several first ladies have made a difference in Arkansas.

Gay White
In her 30s at the time with three teenagers, Gay White said “family first” was required when she and Frank lived in the mansion.

“I didn’t have an agenda,” she said other than normal motherly duties. But aside from family, she quickly was drawn into several arenas that spoke to her personal interests.

“I had always had a love of older people – now I’m glad I did because I am one. At that time, I was only 32 or 33 years old. I had a real fondness and empathy for older people, so I was on the White House Council on Aging. I spent a lot of time visiting with older groups and hearing their concerns and needs,” she said.

White was the first first lady to bring a touch tour to the Governor’s Mansion for those who had physical challenges. “We invited a bunch of students from the School for the Blind,” she said. “We had identified many things we thought would be interesting.”

White continued, “One of the most memorable things that I can recall is we had a group of physically challenged students come to the mansion. I gave them a tour and I remember there was one boy who had cerebral palsy. Someone mentioned he could play the piano. His body was distorted and I thought to myself, ‘That can’t possibly be.’ But they rolled him up to that piano and he played the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard.”

Gay White also worked to promote awareness of those with mental disabilities.

Betty Tucker
An educator by profession, Betty Tucker quickly stepped into a role to help bring attention to one of her husband’s early policy successes – K-3 summer school. The goal of the initiative was to help children in early childhood catch up on deficient reading skills so they would not lag behind in their later years.

“I really believe that if you can catch a child early, you can avoid a lot of problems later in the school years,” Tucker said. She toured the state in the summer of 1993 pushing the reading recovery program, which ultimately had success with three-fourths of the children involved.

The influence of the bully pulpit of the first lady’s post surprised Tucker initially.

“It’s way more powerful than I realized until I was there. People do listen and people in Arkansas, perhaps because we have a small population and people know one another, are very generous about inviting you into their homes and into their lives and into their communities – telling you about the things they care about,” she said. “It’s pretty easy to have an impact.”

Tucker also worked to promote the arts as first lady, including with the Arkansas Arts Center to highlight Arkansas artists through mansion displays for visitors to see.

Ginger Beebe
Ginger Beebe also learned early that the title of first lady carried considerable influence and opportunity.

“People stand up and listen. You can really use the position to bring awareness about issues that not only are important to me, but I think important to a lot of people in this state,” she said.

Her husband Mike tapped the first lady’s popularity and intellect early by asking her to conduct a listening tour around the state to help with his initiative to improve care for those with mental illnesses.

“Mike asked me if I would go out and listen to families whose children suffered from mental illness,” she said. “I did that for a couple of months and put together a report to give to the Commission on Behavioral Health. That was really the first time I realized that, ‘Oh my gosh, people are really listening to me. I have this power to engage people.’”

She later championed efforts to reduce childhood obesity, provide hunger relief and expand awareness of the arts. Ginger Beebe also made it a priority to open up the mansion’s Great Hall for nonprofit events through lower user fees. She noted it helped the fundraisers be more profitable for their different causes.

Susan Hutchinson
Fresh on the job and with less than a year as first lady, Susan Hutchinson has wasted no time taking up projects.

“I’m finding that people of Arkansas are very responsive to their first lady. I’m trying to use that in a positive way,” she said.

Her top priority currently is raising awareness of child abuse and neglect and finding ways to improve the services that can help children in need. She has been a longtime supporter of the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas, which works with child victims of abuse. “I want folks to know that there are wonderful things that are happening for children in spite of some terrible things that might have happened to some children,” Hutchinson said.

She knows the crimes against children are very underreported and can leave lasting scars that carry throughout adulthood and weaken communities.

You’ll likely find her doing more in the near future to promote music and the arts and sciences.

“I’m a musician – I play the piano not well enough to be paid, but well enough to volunteer to play at churches that couldn’t afford a pianist,” she said. Later this fall, she’ll play with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra at an event to raise money for the Governor’s Mansion.

As for the power of the first lady’s pulpit, Hutchinson says she’s “in awe” of it. “It’s a classroom experience every day and the subjects seem to change every day and all through the day,” she’s observed. “It has the prestige and a sense of power and position with it, unlike any other spouse position that you can have.”

Four living former first ladies of Arkansas were unable to participate in our recent interview session and photo shoot – Betty Bumpers, Hillary Clinton, Janet Huckabee and Barbara Pryor. Here’s a brief look at their years in the Governor’s Mansion.

Betty Bumpers
It was the early ’70s when Dale Bumpers became the state’s 38th governor, serving from 1971-75. As first lady – and later while her husband served as a U.S. senator – Elizabeth Callans Flanagan “Betty” Bumpers became known as an effective advocate for childhood immunizations and world peace.

She initiated a campaign to immunize all of Arkansas’ children against childhood diseases. That Every Child by ’74 program proved to be a very successful campaign, delivering immunizations to more than 350,000 children on just one Saturday near its peak. As a result of the program, the state attained one of the highest childhood immunization rates of any U.S. state, and the program was adopted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a model for nationwide use.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton has served in a variety of roles and positions through the years and is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for president. A former United States secretary of state in the administration of President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013 and a former U.S. senator representing New York from 2001 to 2009, she served as first lady of the U.S. from 1993 to 2001 while Bill Clinton was president.

During her tenure as first lady of Arkansas from 1979 to 1981 and 1983 to 1992, she led a task force that reformed Arkansas’ education system and sat on the board of directors of Wal-Mart and several other corporations. She also practiced law with the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. Additionally, she worked on issues ranging from children’s well-being to domestic violence against women.

Janet Huckabee
While Mike Huckabee was governor from 1996 to 2007, Janet McCain Huckabee co-chaired the Campaign for Healthier Babies in Arkansas, which promoted child immunizations.

She also co-chaired the Habitat for Humanity and launched the Rapid Response Team of the Central Arkansas Chapter of the American Red Cross.

An advocate for tourism in Arkansas, the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center, which sits on 170 acres of land at Fort Smith, was named in her honor. She’s currently busy accompanying her husband on the campaign trail as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination.

Barbara Pryor
David Pryor became the state’s 39th governor in January 1975. As first lady, Barbara Jean Lunsford Pryor belonged to the Committee of One Hundred for the Ozark Folk Center, a statewide volunteer advocacy organization, and was a member of the Board of Directors of Goodwill Industries.

She was involved with the Arkansas Repertory Theater, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the Little Rock Public Schools and the Arkansas Arts Center. She also worked to help develop the film industry in Arkansas.