Inside and out, the stately, well-manicured red brick home on the second hole of the Searcy Country Club golf course is an appropriate symbol of wealth and privilege befitting a named partner in the city’s top law firm and 24-year public servant who on Jan. 9 became Arkansas’s 45th governor.
Posed on the veranda beneath soaring columns, Mike Beebe stands a world away from his great-grandmother Maudie’s rickety tarpaper shack where he was born on Dec. 28, 1946, in Amagon, Ark., the fatherless son of a teen-age mother.
His ascension to the Arkansas governor’s office is an accomplishment that testifies to his tenacity, brainpower and strength of personality. He has laughed off statistics that said he faced a life of economic and social leftovers. He has beaten the odds and has earned the title of the Arkansas Times’ Arkansan of the Year for 2006.
As he settled into a tufted leather armchair in the comfortable but elegant library just off the dining room in his Searcy home, Beebe looked back at his life to analyze how he was able to blow the socks off sociology statistics that say 78 percent of children born in the same circumstances today are likely to be doomed to a lifetime of poverty. And those statistics were even more dire in pre-Medicaid, pre-AFDC, pre-ARKids First 1946.
How did he make it? What saved him? Who saved him?
Initially it was his mother, Louise Quattlebaum Beebe. She had no education, but she was smart. She had no money to speak of, but she had a wealth of personality. The future governor inherited all she had.
And when he was on the brink of needing to learn how to become a man, she put her own quest for happiness on hold. She settled him down in Newport, where, for the first time in his young life, Beebe was able to live four uninterrupted years in the same school and the same town — providing him a crucial period of stability during his adolescent years. The stability — the first he had known — allowed him to form critical male bonds with boys his own age, and with the fathers of those friends.
Beebe gives the impression he doesn’t think his journey to adulthood and subsequent success was at all unusual, despite poverty, lack of a father, domestic upheavals, and constant moving from one end of the country to the other.
“It was a simpler time,” he said about the critical teen years, where many a good boy has turned bad. “It was a good time to grow up in a good place.”
He survived with the help of a mother whose own life was limited by circumstance, but who was determined that her son’s life wouldn’t be so restricted.
Louise Beebe was all of 18 years old and had been abandoned by her husband, Lester Kindall Beebe, before the future governor was born. In between several bouts of serious illness during which her son lived with his grandmother and other relatives from Tuckerman to Detroit and points between, Louise supported her son on a waitress’ salary and tips.
“We were poor. We lived in ghetto apartments all over the country — in St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Alamogordo (N.M.), Houston, three places in Florida. I think I went to five different schools in the fifth grade,” Beebe said. “But if she had a dime, I got 10 cents of it.” Along the way, his mother married a number of men, hoping to provide her son a stepfather.
“It wasn’t easy. One thing that sticks in my mind, mother had a different name than mine,” he said. “Today, that’s not a big deal, but it was then. In the 1950s when I was in grade school, everyone’s last name was the same as their mom’s. I remember adopting her last name [his step-father’s] so I wouldn’t be different. It was a stigma.”
He remembers snippets of that time, including one stepfather, Bob Bailey, a “really, really kind man who taught me how to throw a baseball.” He also remembers another abusive stepfather, who beat his mother. That marriage didn’t last very long.
“It was one of those situations that either makes you or breaks you. It’s an extreme, obviously,’’ Beebe said. “I think there are a number of youngsters who grow up in an environment similar to mine who actually don’t get destroyed, who get stronger, who adapt, who adjust, who learn how to cope.”
Those who do manage to cope owe their survival to the people they meet on the way.
“I had five or six friends who had families — a mom and a dad — and there was always an extra place at their table,” Beebe said. “They would never know when I would show up, but there was always a place for me. If it was dinner time, I sat there with them at the table and I got grilled — asked if I was doing my homework, was I obeying my mother, was I staying out of trouble.”
State Auditor Jim Wood of Newport, who was a grade or two behind Beebe in school, remembers how the personable, popular kid was taken in by families in town.
“That town just wrapped its arms around that boy,” Wood said. “There were people all around town keeping an eye on him. Maybe some that he didn’t even know about.”
One of them was Dr. J.D. Ashley, a widower with two rambunctious boys Beebe’s age. He was an old-fashioned country doctor who still made house calls and took chickens and hams at Christmas from people who couldn’t pay. With Dr. Ashley, Beebe set a pattern that would be repeated often as the young man grew and sought other mentors from whom he could learn.
“Dr. Ashley was a really, really smart man because of his sheer knowledge. Not just about medicine. He would talk you about rock music and classical music. He could talk to you about history and philosophy, dove hunting and skiing,” Beebe said. “He was a well-rounded man who was at the right time in terms of influencing who I am.”
When Beebe’s mother got sick with tuberculosis during the summer between his first and second years at Arkansas State University, Beebe lived in the Ashley home and worked digging sewer lines for the local water company.
There was never a grand plan for Beebe to go to college, but at some point during high school he got the idea that he would like to be an FBI agent. He assumed that would require a law degree. That was where the idea of going to college dawned on him.
“There was not much planning going on. I don’t think I thought much past tomorrow,” he said. He stocked shelves and bagged and checked groceries at the local grocery store through high school and his mother saved what she could. And, with the help of an Arkansas Rural Endowment loan, he entered ASU.
He made decent grades through high school without having to study. That changed in college.
“It’s surprising what little things keep you motivated,” he said. “The fraternity house [Sigma Pi] helped me. In a desire to make friends, in a desire to fit in, to belong, I wanted to join. It was another motivation to make my grades.”
By graduation, he had a 4.1 GPA. He went on to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville’s law school and was elected editor of the law review. And he met another mentor who recognized his potential — Searcy lawyer and state Sen. Ed Lightle, who hired the first-year law student as a clerk for himself, partner Cecil Tedder and their new associate, Jim Hannah. Two years later, Beebe turned down more lucrative offers from law firms in Prescott and Jonesboro to sign with Lightle, Tedder and Hannah.
It was a serendipitous move. Before too long, Lightle made plans to retire and the creation of a new judicial district opened up new judgeships for Searcy. Tedder and Hannah were elected to the chancery and district benches.
All of a sudden, Beebe found himself in an established law firm next to the senior partner, and the senior was retiring.
“I remember Mike when he first came to town and I always thought he would eventually be interested in politics, especially being close to Ed, who been a strong, principled senator,” said John Paul Capps, a longtime state representative from Searcy who now holds the area’s Senate seat.
Instead of starting a political career at the bottom, Beebe expressed an interest in getting on the board of trustees of his alma mater, and the politically connected Lightle, Tedder and Hannah went to work.
“I didn’t know squat about that kind of stuff, about how to get an appointment,” Beebe said. “Ed had retired from the Senate, but he got his old friends still in office to write letters on my behalf. And you know [Gov. Dale] Bumpers, being the independent cuss he was, it didn’t bother him to name some kid 26 years old who didn’t know from squat to the ASU board.”
As a young attorney in Searcy, Beebe met and developed a strong friendship with a junior member of then-Sen. Bumpers’ staff, Don Tilton. Their bond grew stronger when Tilton became a lobbyist for ASU. Today, Tilton is a contract lobbyist whose job it is to influence Arkansas legislators and administrators.
“He’s like a brother to me and like brothers, we fight, too,” Tilton said. “He is nothing but open and he won’t tolerate incompetence.”
Tilton described a legislative conversation Beebe had with someone seeking to get Beebe’s support on an issue by telling the senator that he would be perceived one way or another based on how he would vote. The person — whom Tilton refused to identify — told Beebe that, in politics, perception is reality.
“Beebe said, ‘If perception is reality, tell me the value of fact,’ ” Tilton said. “If you come to him with a better mousetrap, you’d better come with evidence.”
Beebe’s five years on the board, plus Lightle’s continuing mentorship, gave Beebe a taste of legislative give-and-take that he liked. He ran for the state Senate in 1982 against incumbent veteran Sen. Bill Hargrove. Several months into the campaign, Hargrove pulled out of the race. The next time Beebe had an election opponent who went the distance to Election Day was last November, against Asa Hutchinson.
“It was weird — 24 years without an opponent ever, Republican or Democrat. I guess that’s never happened,” he said. “Initially, it was good fortune, a lot of luck. I’m sure it was not because nobody wanted the job.”
He had made it. He was educated, had a fine job with a lucrative future and had married the former Dawn Butler of Pangburn, whom he met at ASU. The marriage ended, with no children, but Beebe’s close friendship with his father-in-law, Houston Butler of Searcy, continued.
“He is really the only daddy I ever had — a prince of a man, was and is,” Beebe said. When Beebe and his second wife, new first lady Ginger, became parents of a son in 1980, they named the boy Kyle Houston Beebe. Butler was among the Beebe family members on the platform when the city of Searcy turned out last month to celebrate the election. So were Ginger’s children from a previous marriage that Beebe helped raise —Tammy Powell Taylor and David Powell III.
His attachment to individuals regardless of changing circumstance is another pattern in Beebe’s life. Some eyebrows were raised when the governor-elect appointed a poultry industry lobbyist as his chief of staff.
But the bond between Beebe and his closest friend, Morril Harriman, was forged long before chickens entered the picture. They met in 1985 when Harriman, a freshman state senator, arrived in Little Rock, two years after Beebe’s first election.
The Arkansas Senate was at a generational crossroads when Beebe arrived in 1983. At a previous special session, a group of Young Turks that included Nick Wilson of Pocahontas launched a challenge to the Old Guard oligarchy of Sens. Max Howell of Jacksonville and Knox Nelson of Pine Bluff. The two sides were competing for the best and the brightest incoming freshmen, and Nelson quickly took Beebe under his wing. Two years later, Wilson started wooing Harriman.
“Nick started teaching Harriman stuff, including him on all the major meetings, including revenue stabilization, just like Knox did with me,” Beebe said. “But Morril and I hit it off on a personal level. Even though I knew he was being groomed by Nick, Morril was more akin to me in personality, age, and attitude.”
In ensuing sessions, Harriman, with Beebe’s urging, slowly moved away from Wilson. The final break came in the 1988 special ethics session when Wilson killed Gov. Bill Clinton’s ethics reform bill, and the governor — and his legislative allies, including Beebe and Harriman — took the issue to the people with an initiated act.
“When that happened, it cemented where Morril would be vis-a-vis the Mike Beebe-Nick Wilson War. When that happened, I knew I’d win,” Beebe said. “But a lot of people deserve the credit — [former senators] Stanley Russ, Vic Snyder, Jerry Bookout, Jon Fitch, David Malone, Cliff Hoofman. But to a large extent, it was me and Morril that lined the votes up.”
Eighteen years later, Republican opponent Asa Hutchinson tried to taint Beebe with Wilson’s Darth Vader reputation and his 1999 federal bribery and racketeering convictions.
“The irony was there wasn’t a bigger enemy of Nick Wilson than me,” Beebe said. “Anybody who knew anything about [Arkansas state] government knew that was a lie. Including [outgoing Gov. Mike] Huckabee.”
Although Beebe eschewed Knox Nelson’s autocratic, almost despotic, style of lording over state employees and running the state prison system as his fiefdom, he quietly honored the man who mentored him in his early Senate years.
When Beebe ascended to Senate leadership, he chose Knox Nelson’s end-of-the-row seat in the Joint Budget Committee room, the seat farthest away from the chairman’s platform, as his own. It was a silent tip-of-the-hat to the mentor who taught him that power isn’t always obvious to the casual observer.
Now, Beebe and Harriman, who consider each other brothers, are back together.
“[John] Brummett said that if I was Michael Jordan, he [Harriman] is Scottie Pippen, and Scottie Pippen might be the more valuable player,” Beebe said, quoting the columnist. “Harriman is my brother, a quintessential partner.”
Louise Beebe won’t be there when her son takes the oath of office. She died in 1987. But she lived to see him acquire all the things she wanted for him — a home, a family, an education.
“What happened to me has given me a great respect for and appreciation for education being the great equalizer,” he said.
“I think it created in me a sense of true love for the opportunities this country provides you because how many places in the world could you come from virtually any circumstance and achieve something like being a governor of a state or being a senator or being a lawyer or being a mayor or anything else for that matter. I think all that background shapes a lot of my attitudes and shapes all my interests and shapes a lot of my appreciation for those institutions that cause me to be successful and have my chance at the American dream.
“That’s primary — this country, its people, and education. It’s why education is the cornerstone of the future and of our state’s obligation for the next generation.”
Joan I. Duffy, who covered Arkansas for The Commercial Appeal of Memphis from 1990 to 2002, has been a political and governmental reporter since 1976. She was a legislative reporter and editor for United Press International in New Orleans and Baton Rouge before relocating to Little Rock. She also covered Arkansas state government for the Arkansas Democrat. Since 2002, she has been media relations manager for UALR’s Office of Communications.