Leader Blues

Friday, August 15, 2008

TOP STORY > >Shocking homicide stuns all in region

Leader senior staff writer

From old Jacksonville friends to once (and perhaps future) presidents, folks who knew state Democratic Party chairman Bill Gwatney are grieving, praising Gwatney and wondering what the future might have held for him had he not been senselessly gunned down at work Wednesday.

Blaine Hayes, who worked for Gwatney for 30 years, said that when his father-in-law died in 1994, he needed money up front to pay the funeral home. “I walked up the stairs to his office,” Hayes said, and when he asked, Gwatney told him, “Whatever you need, you’ve got it.”

“We are deeply saddened,” said Bill and Hillary Clinton. “His leadership and commitment to Arkansas and this country have always inspired us and those who had the opportunity to know him. Our prayers are with his family during this time.”

“I cried all day yesterday,” said Republican JP Bob Johnson of Jacksonville. “There’s a lot of us that’s hurting.

“We go back to his birth,” said Johnson. “I don’t remember not knowing Bill. We went to a lot of football and basketball games. He was a big supporter of UALR.”

“I think he was very instrumental in Mike Beebe becoming governor,” said Johnson. “He was his friend, his campaign manager and a good statesman. But he never forgot where he came from. He kept his business in Jacksonville, supported American Legion and Tuesday night basketball games.

“He always was pro-Jacksonville, working to make it better place to live and work.”
He was down to earth, loved his kids and was a good family man.

“It’s a tough day for everybody,” said Jacksonville businessman Mike Wilson, who said he knew Gwatney all his life as neighbors and friends. “It’s a senseless, tragic thing. “

Wilson, a former state representative himself, said he encouraged Gwatney to run for the state Senate when the seat came open. “I was glad because I thought we needed a young, bright, articulate person.”

Wilson said Gwatney quickly became “very astute in the legislative process and very knowledgeable about state government in general.”

“He could get to the heart of the matter,” Wilson said.

“He was always very interested in economic development locally and in the state,” he said.

“He also was instrumental passage of the any-willing-provider law, which allows Arkansans covered by managed-care health insurance plans to see the doctor of their choice.

“He could be impatient and didn’t suffer fools gladly,” said Wilson, attributing that in part to Gwatney’s quick mind and ability to see into the center of a problem pretty quickly.

“His commitment to our local community stands out in my mind. A bigger and better Jacksonville was in the forefront of his efforts.”

Wilson said Gwatney was a graduate of Jacksonville High School and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and his family opened the Chevrolet dealership in the late 1950s. Right out of college he was a state bank examiner and was an officer of his family owned bank, Citizen’s Bank, Wilson said. “He was a director of our (First Arkansas) bank.

“He served on our (North Metro) hospital board,” Wilson said. “He was interested in community health care as well as economic development.

“He energized the party to new highs that hadn’t been seen in years and years,” said state Sen. Bobby Glover of Carlisle. “He enjoyed what he was doing. He wanted to make a difference and he did.

“He had the potential of seeking any office and making a success of it,” said Glover, who has known him since Gwatney joined the state Senate. “There was talk of him one time running for governor. He could have served in that office or the U.S. Senate or Congress and he would have handled himself very well and been very productive,” said Glover.

“The thing I admire about him the most, when he talked about issues, he left no doubt about how he felt. He was very forthright.

As for Gwatney’s serving as state Democratic Party chairman, “for anyone other than Beebe, I’m not sure he would have done it.”

“He had good instincts,” said state Rep. Will Bond of Jacksonville, who cut his political teeth in 1992 in Gwatney’s first Senate race, campaigning door-to-door with him. Later, himself elected to the state House of Representatives, Bond said he would call Gwatney periodically for advice. “He wasn’t afraid to take some risks to say what he believed. His heart was always on the right side of most policy issues.”

“He did a great job in the Senate and as head of the party and I liked him a lot.”

“He was vibrant, affable and very driven on issues that he considered important for his district and for the state of Arkansas,” said state Sen. John Paul Capps of Searcy, who through redistricting now represents parts of Gwatney’s and Beebe’s former Senate districts.

“He took the side of those who didn’t have lobbyists,” said Capps. “He always devoted attention to those who needed help. When he saw something he thought was wrong, he worked against it.

“He was really enjoying this chairmanship, doing a great job. He had three car dealerships, good people working for him and he was really enjoying life,” Capps said.