Opinion

Tom Dillard: Arkansas suffered loss of many preservationists in 2021

The Arkansas history community lost to death some important leaders, writers and volunteers last year. Our collective heritage is safeguarded by a remarkably small number of people, so our historical legacy is threatened by the grim reaper as well as disinterested legislators and policy makers.

These few words of remembrance will, I hope, remind us that we owe much to those who work to preserve historic and prehistoric sites and structures in Arkansas, save our historic records, research and write the stories which help document who we are, and help our young people realize that history did not begin with their births.

The Jefferson County history community was hit hard by deaths in 2021. The year was still young when David Perdue died on Jan. 24 at age 86.

Born May 3, 1934, in Pine Bluff, Perdue attended local schools and graduated from the University of Arkansas. He served in the U.S. Air Force before returning to Pine Bluff to join the Perdue Company, a family-owned printing and office supply business founded in 1908 by his grandfather, J.A. Perdue Sr.

Perdue had a lifelong interest in the history of his community and state. He served on the Arkansas History Commission, including as chairman, published a book on the Civil War titled "They Never Came Back," and led efforts to restore a Gatling gun in the Old State House Museum collections. He was an organizer of the Jefferson County Historical Society in 1961.

Young readers might not know that we once had legislators who cared more about getting things done than grandstanding, like Rep. Charles W. Stewart III of Fayetteville.

Stewart, a genuinely nice man who died Feb. 1, 2021, at the age of 93, was an El Dorado native who joined the Navy at age 17 during World War II. He graduated from the UA Law School in 1951 and was a 70-year member of the Washington County Bar Association at his death.

A longtime leader in the Washington County Historical Society, he helped preserve several historic buildings, including Carnall Hall on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville. With a cadre of allies, Stewart set about on a "slow and deliberate process to undo years of neglect," resulting in preservation funding for Carnall Hall and helping establish a preservation ethic at the university.

The history community in Hot Springs lost a major leader on March 1, 2021, when Clay Farrar died at age 70. A Hot Springs native who graduated from Rhodes College and Southern Methodist University Law School, Farrar took on large projects to preserve the historic infrastructure in Hot Springs, such as successfully convincing Congress to spend $6 million restoring the Fordyce Bathhouse as the new park visitor center. At the time of his death, Farrar was chairing an effort to preserve the former Army and Navy Hospital.

Gretchen B. Gearhart of Fayetteville, a quiet woman who worked steadily to record state and local history. died Aug. 5, 2021. A former editor of the Flashback, the award-winning journal of the Washington County Historical Society, she also published histories of Fayetteville's St. Joseph Catholic Church and the Friends of the Fayetteville Public Library. She was assistant editor of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly magazine in the 1990s.

Patrick Carver, who died Aug. 14, 2021, was a friend of mine. He was among the first people I got to know in Malvern when we retired to the area in 2014. Pat, who grew up in Malvern and returned there after retiring, worked steadily with his wife, Danna, to preserve the trove of county records now housed in the old jail atop the Hot Spring County courthouse. The county has never had a courthouse fire, so it is one of the best documented of our 75 counties.

Wanda M. Gray of Waldron in Scott County died Oct. 24, 2021. Though she had a long and varied career and lived in several states, she had a deep love for her hometown, where she returned in retirement. A founder of the Scott County Genealogical and Historical Society, she wrote and edited numerous historical publications on her area and served as mayor of Waldron.

Gray served on the Arkansas History Commission, where she was an advocate for much needed revitalization. In 2014, the Arkansas Historical Association recognized her with its highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ernestine "Ernie" Wallis, who died Nov. 5, 2021, was the godmother of the Jefferson County Historical Society. She and her husband, Dave, were the moving force in creating and nurturing the Society's journal, the Quarterly, now in its 50th year. She also worked to preserve the history of the United Methodist Church in Arkansas. With her husband, Wallis was a partner in Wallis & Wallis, an advertising agency.

The deaths of Ernie Wallis and David Perdue have been a challenge to the local history community, but the group perseveres, and there's a new Wallis on the Quarterly editorial board, Virginia, Ernie and Dave's daughter.

Sister Catherine Markey OSB, the longtime archivist at the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock, died on Dec. 11, 2021, at age 94. Sister Catherine, a respected colleague, was a highly recognized activist for a variety of causes, including worker rights and abolishment of the death penalty.

In addition to carefully organizing diocesan records according to professional archival standards, she gave advice and encouragement to local parishes on preserving historical records. Since making a monastic profession in 1993, Sister Catherine worked as the archivist and librarian at St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith.

Addendum

My recent column on a 1922 lynching mentioned that the victim was killed by group gunfire. Some readers were under the impression that a lynching involved hanging exclusively, but mobs used a multitude of means to murder their victims -- burning alive no doubt being the worst.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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