Eighty years ago today, on July 14, 1937, U.S. Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson died in his apartment in Washington D.C.
The Senator’s wife, Ewilda, was in Little Rock making preparations for a trip the couple was to take. (She was informed of her husband’s death when her sister-in-law called to express condolences. No one had yet notified her in Little Rock.) Following his demise, Mrs. Robinson went to Washington to accompany her husband’s body back to Arkansas.
As the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Robinson was usually President Franklin Roosevelt’s point person to shepherd legislation on Capitol Hill. The Democrat’s 1928 Vice Presidential nominee, Senator Robinson was particularly close to FDR. He had successfully steered numerous pieces of New Deal legislation through Congress. However, at the time of his death, the Senator was facing an uphill climb trying to build consensus on the President’s unpopular Court Packing scheme.
The Senator was honored with a memorial service in the Senate chambers on Friday, July 17. President Roosevelt and the cabinet joined members of the senate on the floor in what was described as a state funeral without pomp. Mrs. Robinson sat with her brothers and two nephews as well as Bernard Baruch and Arkansas Power & Light’s Harvey Couch, who were Senator Robinson’s closest friends. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the many crowded in the senate galleries observing the service. Following the service his body remained in the chambers until it was transferred to a train to make the journey to Little Rock.
The funeral train bore his body, his family, 50 senators and over twenty congressmen. It reached Little Rock around 8am on Sunday the 19th. From there, Senator Robinson’s body was taken to his house on Broadway Street until noon. It subsequently lay in state at the Arkansas State Capitol until being escorted by military to First Methodist Church.
1,500 people packed the church a half hour before the service began. The sun shone through the windows onto the flag-draped coffin as Rev. H. Bascom Watts led the service. Among the pallbearers was former Vice President Charles G. Dawes. Governor Carl Bailey of Arkansas was joined by Governors Richard Leche of Louisiana and E.W. Marland of Oklahoma.
As the funeral procession reached Roselawn Cemetery, thunder echoed. The skies which had alternated between sun and rain that day, returned to rain. A deluge greeted the end of the service and sent visitors hurrying for shelter at the end.
Five months after her husband’s death, Mrs. Robinson participated in the groundbreaking of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium. The groundbreaking ceremony was the first time it was announced that building would be named in his memory. On a plaque inside that building today, a quote from President Roosevelt stands as a further testament of the importance of Senator Robinson to the US. Taken from President Roosevelt’s remarks upon learning of the Senator’s death, the plaque reads, in part, “A pillar of strength is gone.”
Seventy-eight and a half years later, the church was the site of the funeral of longtime US Senator Dale Bumpers in January 2016.