by Max Brantley
I've just received word that Jack Meriweather, 79, died this morning at St. Vincent Hospice.
Knowing his death was near, Ernie Dumas, currently traveling, wrote an advance obituary on his frequent lunch companion that is a rich slice of Arkansas history — ranging from Paragould to Texarkana to Little Rock City Hall to corridors of power in Washington, to the University of Arkansas with stops at Charles Portis and the Arkansas Gazette. It is, most of all, a tribute to a friend. It begins here and will continue on the jump. Ruebel Funeral Home will be handling arrangements.
Meriwether, who was born and reared in Paragould, was the city manager of Texarkana and Little Rock and later vice president of the University of Arkansas, a job he used to bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the state’s system of higher education. Between those jobs, he was general manager of the Arkansas Gazette and vice president for development of the First National Bank of Paragould, on whose board he served for more than 30 years.
When Meriwether resigned as city manager in 1974 to help run the bank at Paragould, the Arkansas Democrat’s editorial cartoonist, Jon Kennedy, caricatured him embracing the Little Rock skyline under the caption “The City that Jack Built.”
John Thompson Meriwether was born Nov. 23, 1933, to Ray and Marie Thompson Meriwether. The Meriwether family was among the pioneers who settled Paragould and opened a hardware store in 1883. The fourth generation — Jack and his cousin, the late Robert W. Meriwether of Conway, a professor at Hendrix College — sold the business and it closed in 1956.
Jack attended The Citadel at Charleston, S.C., for two years after graduating from Paragould High School and transferred to the University of Arkansas, where he received a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics. He spent two years in the Army as an infantry officer, 18 months of them in Korea, after the cessation of hostilities. He decided on a career in public administration and received a master’s degree in that field from the University of Kansas at Lawrence in 1959.
Between his graduation at Fayetteville and his Army duty, he was an intern in the city manager’s office at Little Rock, and after graduate school he returned as an administrative assistant and then was promoted to assistant city manager in 1960. He shared an apartment in Little Rock for a while with two newspapermen, one of whom was Korean War veteran Charles “Buddy” Portis, an Arkansas Gazette columnist and later a celebrated novelist. In an interview in 2000, Meriwether remembered an “Our Town” column in the Gazette in which Portis concocted a yarn about a disabled fellow who made his living by cutting up old Christmas cards and making gift labels from them. Portis invited people to package and mail their old cards to the fellow at an address that belonged to Meriwether. He was deluged for weeks by sacks of mail. Still, he and Portis were lifelong friends.
In July 1964, Texarkana hired Meriwether as its city manager at a salary of $10,800 a year. One of his first jobs was to sell the city on an Act 9 industrial bond issue, which brought Cooper Tire and Rubber Co. to Texarkana. It is now the largest employer in the border cities with about 1,700 workers.
President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which he declared that summer, included pilot demonstration projects in a number of troubled cities. It was supposed to help the cities attack poverty and discrimination through economic development, civic improvements and greater citizen participation. Meriwether thought it was an opportunity for the twin cities. When the first Model Cities projects were announced in 1967, Texarkana was one of them.
Meriwether hired Thomas C. McRae, an El Dorado native, as director of the Model Cities program, which went to work in four blighted neighborhoods. In the next four years, more than $30 million was plowed into the neighborhoods, through streets and gutters, water and sewer improvements, the razing of dilapidated housing and relocation of residents in new housing. The $3.5 million to $4 million in federal funds each year more than tripled the city’s budget for the five years. The program also brought in among the first Vista volunteers in the country to organize the neighborhoods and promote citizen action. The Vista workers were both black and white and they raised the hackles of segregationists in the community. Meriwether survived a 4-3 vote by the city directors on shutting down the Model Cities project because of unhappiness over the racial and social adjustments caused by the housing program.
“We hired a crew of people that we could never have afforded, and Ron Copeland and Tom McRae got a bunch of kids coming back from the Peace Corps to try to bring democracy to Miller County,” Meriwether recalled a few years ago. “It was an interesting experience, because Miller County tends to be conservative, as much as any place in Arkansas.”
In 1969, Little Rock’s city Board of Directors let its new city manager go after he disappeared during a police “blue flu” strike and hired Meriwether, who had negotiated with the public employee unions when he had been assistant city manager and loved it. A strike by sanitation workers seemed imminent.
If they are doing their jobs, Meriwether would explain about his leaving Texarkana, after five years city managers usually attract enough hostility that they need to move on. He had persuaded the Texarkana Civil Service Commission to fire the police chief for incidents of overzealousness and insubordination — he tried to veto raises that Meriwether had given city policemen — and the chief vowed to shoot Meriwether. An emissary talked him out of killing the city manager.
Besides, Meriwether knew Little Rock well and the new job paid $22,500. Little Rock’s city directors — Haco Boyd, George Wimberly, Sandy Keith, Martin Borchert, Victor Menifee and others — were as conservative as those in Texarkana, but Meriwether, a big, jovial man with a mordant and ready wit, became personal friends of them all.
“Jack’s interpersonal skills when he was at the top of his game were unparalleled in the public environment,” said Jim Lynch, who got his training under Meriwether. “He could wheedle agreement out of the most reluctant of political and bureaucratic participants.”
When the Civil Service Board defended its role of running things strictly according to old personnel policies, Meriwether worked with Jeane Lambie, the head of the municipal employees union, to develop an alternative employee manual that applied to blue-collar employees.
Meriwether brought the Model Cities program to Little Rock in the second round of demonstration cities in 1970. Under Model Cities, Meriwether promoted the hiring of blacks at City Hall in jobs other than janitor and sanitation work. “New Careers,” as the program was called, gave on-the-job training to young black men and women to prepare them for professional jobs in government or the private arena. Little Rock was named the most innovative city in the United States in minority training.
He and his assistant, Tom Downs, created a downtown renewal program with a new twist: a convention hotel (the Camelot) built on top of a municipal parking deck. They also rescued and reorganized the city’s moribund bus system, negotiating with other governments in Central Arkansas to form an areawide bus system, which was then handed off to the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission.
The city undertook two giant street projects, the development of University Avenue, formerly a narrow congested passage called Hayes Street, and the widening of Cantrell Road from downtown from two to four lanes. Meriwether personally undertook much of the right-of-way bargaining for the University Avenue development.
Of the Cantrell widening, Meriwether would later relate some of the complications. He received a telephone call from J.N. Heiskell, the editor and principal owner of the Gazette since 1902, who was then approaching the age of 100. Heiskell said that he as he drove to work in the mornings, he pulled over to the side of Cantrell just west of the viaduct to dip a cup into a small waterfall for a refreshing gulps of cold spring water. He worried that Meriwether was going to destroy the spring in the big widening project. Meriwether drove to the spot and traced the water to a leak from the municipal waterworks at the top of the wooded bluff. He decided the leak was OK. He telephoned Heiskell that he needn’t worry about the spring. Several years later, Meriwether would go to work to try to save Heiskell’s paper.
When a developer proposed a large housing development north of the new Hall High School, Meriwether told him the city was apt to view the plans more favorably if they made allowances for a large neighborhood park. After he left the city, the park was named Meriwether Park, now commonly known in the community as Rocket Park.
In 1973, he pushed a large annexation of subdivisions along the southwestern border and took the city directors to Newark, N.J., to show them the perils of having a city ringed by small residential and commercial communities. The annexation passed but was thrown out in court. It took some years for the annexation to be restored.
Adhering to his plan not to stay more than five years, Meriwether resigned in 1974 and became vice president for development at the Paragould bank in which the family had a major interest. But he stayed only 18 months. Gov. Dale Bumpers also appointed him chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Education, which recommended sweeping reforms of public school programs in 1975.
He returned to Little Rock that year, partly so that his wife, Peggy, could be near medical facilities for cancer treatment. She died several years later. The Gazette was being challenged by a wealthier competitor, the owners of the Democrat, and Meriwether was hired to take over the business management.
Meriwether took the job because he revered the newspaper and did not want it to fail, but when he could not persuade the publisher on the steps that were needed to prevail, he resigned. “I had, honestly, too much respect for the institution,” he said. “I was not going to sit there and ride it down.”
Jim Martin, who was president of the University of Arkansas system, hired him in 1982 as vice president for university relations, which was basically lobbying for all the university campuses. In the fall of 1983, when Gov. Bill Clinton called a special session of the legislature to adopt education reforms and raise taxes for education, Meriwether lobbied hard for the tax program, which passed narrowly. Clinton wanted all the taxes placed in a special school fund that would not be shared by other agencies, but Meriwether persuaded the Joint Budget Committee to siphon off $50 million a year of the proceeds of a one percent sales tax and dedicate it to the state colleges and universities. Over Clinton’s objections, the legislature adopted the Meriwether plan.
A furious Clinton told the university’s new president, Ray Thornton, to stop Meriwether from lobbying at the state Capitol. So Meriwether turned his attention to the federal government. He had been a member of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation Board of Trustees — its president for six years — and he obtained a grant to develop a working relationship with the state’s congressional delegation. Sen. Dale Bumpers, who had consulted with Meriwether in his early years as governor, had become a member of the Appropriations Committee. Bumpers inserted an earmark in the appropriations to establish the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas.
Over the next 10 years, according to Chuck Culver, who was Bumpers’s agricultural liaison, at Meriwether’s behest about $120 million was appropriated to the university system and other Arkansas colleges, the largest recipients being the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, mainly for agricultural, medical and engineering research.
“Until Jack, Senator Bumpers had not targeted higher education as the recipient of federal funds to support economic activity and increase knowledge that would benefit everyday citizens,” Culver said last week. “Jack was a pathfinder.”
Until shortly before his death, Bumpers and Meriwether lunched each Wednesday.
Meriwether was preceded in death by his wife, Peggy; his sons Tom and Daniel; and his sister, Jane Johnson and husband Jack Johnson of Rochester, New York.
He is survived by his wife, Judy Thompson; stepchildren Greg Thompson (Annamary) of Little Rock, Ashley Thompson (Andy Junge) of San Francisco; step-grandchildren Walker Junge of San Francisco and Cate Thompson of Little Rock; nieces Annie B. (Matt) Mahon of Boston, MA, Lynn (Jeff) Wiley of Rochester, N.Y., and Ellen (Al) Turner of Rochester, N.Y.; Sylvia Meriwether of Conway, the widow of his cousin Bob Meriwether; second cousins Sarah (Keith) Coker of Conway, Will (Joy) Meriwether of Conway, David (Tine) Meriwether of Hood River, Ore., and Nick (Janet) Meriwether of Portsmouth, Ohio; cousin Rosemary (Gene) Rapley, Fort Smith and second cousins Nancy (David) Fagan, Phoenix, Az., and Gil (Leslie) Rapley, Atlanta, Ga.
Ruebel Funeral Home will be handling arrangements.
Memorials may be made to the Arkansas Food Bank, Alzheimer's Association, and AETN or the charity of your choice.