John Netherland (J. N.) Heiskell served as editor of the Arkansas Gazette for more than seventy years.
He was born on November 2, 1872, in Rogersville, Tennessee, to Carrick White Heiskell and Eliza Ayre Netherland Heiskell. He entered the University of Tennessee at Knoxville before his eighteenth birthday and graduated in three years at the head of his class on June 7, 1893.
His early journalism career included jobs with newspapers in Knoxville and Memphis and with the Associated Press in Chicago and Louisville. On June 17, 1902, Heiskell’s family bought controlling interest in the Arkansas Gazette. Heiskell became the editor, and his brother, Fred, became managing editor.
Governor George Donaghey appointed Heiskell to succeed Jeff Davis in the United States Senate after Davis’s death in office. Heiskell served from January 6, 1913, until January 29, 1913, when a successor was elected.
On June 28, 1910, Heiskell married Wilhelmina Mann, daughter of the nationally prominent architect, George R. Mann. The couple had four children: Elizabeth, Louise, John N. Jr., and Carrick.
In 1907, he joined a successful effort to build the city’s first public library. He served on the library board from that year until his death and was issued the first library card. He also served on the City’s Planning Commission for decades.
In 1912, he was instrumental in bringing John Nolen to Little Rock to devise a park plan. Heiskell was also largely responsible for the location of Robinson Auditorium. When City Council members had competing locations, he advocated for the corner of Markham and Broadway. And kept at it until the site was selected.
In the paper and in his own personal opinions, he crusaded on a variety of progressive causes. Perhaps the most famous was the Gazette’s stance in the 1957 Central High desegregation crisis. It was for this effort that the paper received two Pulitzer Prizes.
Although Heiskell stopped going to the office at age ninety-nine, he continued to take an active interest in the newspaper. He began by having a copy of the newspaper delivered to his home by messenger as soon as it came off the press each night. Eventually, he switched to having his secretary call him daily at his home and read the entire newspaper to him. He operated on the premise that “anyone who runs a newspaper needs to know what’s in it, even to the classified ads.”
A few weeks after turning 100, Heiskell died of congestive heart failure brought on by arteriosclerosis on December 28, 1972. He is buried in Little Rock’s Mount Holly Cemetery. Interestingly, he is buried in the same cemetery as two of his most notable adversaries: Governor Jeff Davis, and segregationist Congressman Dale Alford.