Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

TOP STORY > >Gwatney threw a big shadow without blocking the light

Story by JOHN HOFHEIMER/Leader senior staff writer

That Bill Gwatney cast a big shadow was evident Monday afternoon when a governor, a former president, three U.S. senators and a choir full of state lawmakers attended his funeral in the majestic sanctuary of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in Little Rock.

That several hundred mourners — including employees, business people, childhood friends, Democratic regulars and others joined the family, filling not only the cathedral, but two overflow halls — is evidence that he cast that shadow without blocking the light.

Laughter filled the great room when Rev. Victor H. Nixon called Gov. Mike Beebe to the dais, accidentally identifying him as “Gov. Mike Huckabee.”

“Thank you monsignor,” Beebe responded to more laughter, pretending to misidentify Nixon as Monsignor O’Donnell, who later led the Lord’s Prayer.

“Bill Gwatney gave love,” Beebe told the mourners. “You can’t get loyalty without giving loyalty.”

Beebe handpicked his old friend first to serve as his campaign finance director, then as chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas.

“He worked for a better future for our state,” the governor said. “His heart was softer and warmer than he liked to let people know.

“He chose public service because from those to whom much is given, much is expected,” Beebe said.

“He had a quick, discerning mind, a quick wit and a big heart to exhibit and receive love,” the governor said.

“We’re all sitting here trying to make some sense of this,” said former President Bill Clinton. “He should have been coming to my funeral, not the other way around.”

Gwatney was 48, Clinton is 62.

“We can really only keep him alive if the love is manifested in our lives,” Clinton said.

The former president said he was grateful to Gwatney for the any-willing-provider legislation he helped guide through the state Senate—similar to a bill that the Clintons were unsuccessful in getting passed in Congress.

“I’m grateful for his helping Mike Beebe become governor,” he added.

“I liked him, I admired him and I’m grateful for him,” Clinton concluded.

He cited Gwatney’s support for Hillary in her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Later, outside the church, Hillary Clinton said that Gwatney would have turned 49 the same day that she’s slated to speak at the Democratic convention and she had planned to stop by his birthday party to help celebrate.

“Sunday a week ago, by God’s grace, we all gathered in Memphis and shared lunch and that’s the last time I saw him alive,” said Russell Gwatney, his brother.

“We hugged each other and said ‘I love you,’” he said.

It was apparently in the context of Gwatney’s job as Democratic chairman that Timothy Dale Johnson of Searcy walked into his office late last Wednesday morning and shot him several times in the chest. Gwatney was pronounced dead at University of
Arkansas for Medical Sciences at 3:49 p.m.

If there are clues to Johnson’s motive, Little Rock police are not releasing them.

The state Crime Lab has not finished Johnson’s toxicology report, and the state has not released its report into the fatal shootout between three state troopers and two policemen with Johnson, Gwatney’s alleged killer.

It was certainly in context of that job that members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka arrived to protest Gwatney’s funeral, saying God killed Gwatney to punish him and Democrats and the United States for accepting homosexuals.

Nixon alluded to the protesters in his sermon, saying, “(Gwatney’s murder) was not God’s will,” and that God was not using Gwatney’s death as “a tool to punish us. God loves Bill.”

The Westboro group frequently protests at funerals of dead soldiers, again saying it was God’s punishment for a country that tolerates homosexuality. And as usual, the Patriot Guard motorcycle group arrived as counter demonstrators.

About a dozen Little Rock police guarded the corner where both sets of demonstrators were, just 50 yards from where the governor and the Clintons entered and left the building.

About 950 to 1,000 people attended the funeral, according to church spokesperson Scharmel Roussel.

“The sanctuary was seated beyond capacity,” she said, including the choir loft. Folding chairs lined the aisles and people stood where they could.

She said the funeral was similar in size and scope to Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller’s about two years ago.

Gwatney’s funeral was Web cast live on two Web sites and televised live on two local television stations.

“The crowd and amount of interest indicate how well loved he was,” she said.