July 2018 Issue
by Joe David Rice
Photography by Camille Brewington Tippitt
Dr. Ruth Hawkins can be described in many ways. This Northeast Arkansas resident is a wife, mother, administrator, consultant, preservationist, author, mentor and visionary. Given that she’s obtained nearly $30 million in matching grants for several world-class projects in the state’s Delta region, let’s add “rainmaker” to that impressive list.
Hawkins was born on a farm outside St. Louis and has spent the past 40 years in Jonesboro, holding various positions with Arkansas State University (ASU). Along the way, she earned advanced degrees, worked on establishing key heritage tourism sites in the state, developed a unique doctoral program and brought the world’s attention to an overlooked region of Arkansas.
Hawkins cut her development teeth with Crowley’s Ridge National Scenic Byway, a 198-mile-long route winding through the upland countryside between Helena and Piggott. Rodney Slater, President Bill Clinton’s head of the Federal Highway Administration at the time and a native of Marianna, had encouraged her to pursue this idea. With the cooperation of mayors and county judges along the corridor, the byway was officially designated in 1998, the first in Arkansas.
During the search for an anchor at the route’s northern end, Hawkins and her team discovered that an intriguing property was on the market in Piggott: the Paul Pfeiffer homestead. Pfeiffer’s daughter, Pauline, had married Ernest Hemingway in 1927, and the couple spent a good deal of time in and around Piggott before their divorce in 1940. In fact, Hemingway produced most of his acclaimed novel, A Farewell to Arms, in the town, crafting his prose in an out-building that had been converted into a writer’s studio. The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum, complete with original furniture, opened in 1999, the first of what was to become several heritage sites owned by ASU. The impact of the new attraction was almost instantaneous, with 14 new businesses opening in Piggott within two years (and four more expanding).
While collecting background material for the museum, Hawkins realized that the Pfeiffer family, particularly Pauline, hadn’t been treated fairly over the years. To set the record straight, Hawkins wrote Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage. The book was published 14 years after she first started doing research, and the 300-plus page tome put Hawkin’s journalism experience to good use. “But I’ll never do that again,” she says with a grin.
One result of the book is that it radically altered her perception of Hemingway as a person. “He tried to appear macho, but was so insecure,” explains Hawkins. “He made himself look good by putting other people down. He felt diminished by the successes of his contemporaries.”
Hawkins soon became involved with two other major projects. The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, which opened in 2005, traces the farm labor movement in the South with an emphasis on sharecropping and tenant farming. Lakeport Plantation, located near Lake Village and one of the state’s premier antebellum structures, began receiving guests in 2007, after a five-year restoration. As with the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum, both are under the stewardship of ASU.
In 2009, Hawkins and her associates received a challenging assignment from the Arkansas General Assembly: to study the heritage tourism potential of Dyess Colony, the Mississippi County community best known as Johnny Cash’s hometown. Upon completion of a master plan, the city donated the historic Administration Building and Theatre to ASU in 2010. The next year, ASU bought the Johnny Cash boyhood home and began an extensive restoration project funded by proceeds from the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival. In the summer of 2014, the 1,000-square foot, two-bedroom home had its grand reopening, with members of the Cash family participating in the festivities.
“The Cashes are a remarkable group,” says Hawkins. “They’re very humble, down to earth people tied to their roots.” She shares one of Rosanne Cash’s favorite sayings: “All of us have a little gumbo in our blood.”
The public reception to the boyhood home and its authentic furnishings has been nothing short of astonishing. So far, guests from 58 countries have toured the restored home. “They’re wowed when they walk in,” says Hawkins. “And when they walk out, they know where the music comes from. They sense the love for his family, the concern for his fellow man.” Tourists frequently mention Cash songs that have direct ties to his Dyess upbringing, hits such as “Five Feet High and Rising” and “Pickin’ Time.”
Although she may retire in the near future, Hawkins won’t be content to spend her days in front of the television. “I’ll stay involved,” she says, mentioning the Sultana Museum underway at Marion.
The four decades that Hawkins has devoted to eastern Arkansas have not gone unnoticed. She’s won just about every award presented by the state’s museum, preservation and tourism groups, including a Distinguished Service Award from the Mississippi River Parkway Commission.
“I’m not sure I can think of anyone else who has had a bigger impact on tourism in that part of the state than Ruth Hawkins,” says Kane Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. “She has created an international attraction in Dyess, and the world is responding in impressive numbers. Ruth is a bulldog when it comes to getting things done.”
Her tenacity can be traced back to her respect for the Delta’s sense of place. “This is a rich agricultural area where people come from the soil,” she says. “There’s a special resiliency here where you rely on the friendliness and trust of your neighbors.”
Toward the end of our conversation, Hawkins suggests that she’s received entirely too much attention — that the credit should be shared with many strong and creative women (especially Paula Miles, her longtime assistant and handler of details). “Motherhood translates well into the workplace,” she says. “Mothers have to be planners, organizers and special event experts.” Hawkins is still amazed that her own mother managed to raise 12 children.
As for the nearly $30 million in grants, Hawkins says her days as a journalist helped. “I tried to put myself into the eyes of the grant reviewers,” she says, “and produce the information they expected.” Arkansas is much better off as a result, thanks to Dr. Ruth Hawkins.