Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008, was a normal, sunny but not oppressively hot, Arkansas summer day. My boss was about to take a few days off before the entire staff went to a major conference. He stopped in to make phone calls and finish paperwork. That was where normal ended.
That day, Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Bill Gwatney was killed in his office at the headquarters. It was a traumatic and tragic time, and Arkansas lost one of its best. This week, I asked a few people who were close to Bill to share their remembrances.
Ginger Beebe, former First Lady of Arkansas:
“Bill introduced me to speak to hundreds of people not long after Mike was elected and I was so nervous. He stayed on stage with me, gave me a smile, and many nods of support. Bill was born with wealth but he never forgot the people who did not have much. His was a life of giving — gone too soon.”
Bill Vickery, Republican lobbyist:
“Bill and I had some pretty spirited battles on TV arguing politics, and what I really liked and respected most about him was we maintained our friendship throughout. I know he felt passionately about his beliefs, but he was able to respect mine too. I miss that in politics. Bill could be your friend, disagree with you, then have a laugh and swap stories. When we lost him we lost some of the humanity in Arkansas politics.”
Rex Nelson, Simmons First National Corporation:
“When we lost Bill Gwatney, we lost one of our state’s best and brightest. Bill loved Arkansas and wanted the best for our state and its people. Even though his family had ample financial resources, Bill always cared deeply about those less fortunate. He wanted Arkansas to truly be the land of opportunity for all of its residents.”
Skip Rutherford, Dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service:
“Bill and I were in a breakfast group together and we spent many fall Saturdays watching and talking football with friends who gathered at Mr. Wicks clothing store. Bill always spoke proudly about Arkansas and its future. My hope was that one day he himself would run for Governor, the U.S. House or the U.S. Senate. He was a role model for public service.”
I believe things would be different at 1300 West Capitol Avenue, and thus in Arkansas, if Bill Gwatney were still with us. Chairman Gwatney was a fighter. He may not have had to struggle in his upbringing, but he was dedicated to fighting for what he thought was right and for those he thought needed a voice. Although I didn’t have the privilege of working for him for very long, he made a profound impact on me professionally and personally.
We will always miss Bill.