Remembering LR Mayor John Widgery

On June 17, 1802, future Little Rock Mayor John Widgery was born in Portland ME to Mr. and Mrs. William Widgery.  His father died in 1804.  At the age of 11, John Widgery entered Bowdoin College.  He was the youngest student admitted to the college.

Widgery studied law with his uncle, Nathan Kinsman.  He married Ann L. Woodward, who was from Boston MA.  According to Bowdoin College records, he later “wandered away into the Southwest” spending time “in the Cherokee country.”

Widgery spent most of his adult life in the south. For a time Widgery was clerk of the Mississippi House of Representatives.  He then moved to Little Rock prior to 1840.  By 1840, he was Recorder for the City of Little Rock.

According to media reports at the time, several tradesman groups encouraged Widgery to run for Mayor in January 1841.  He did run but lost to Rev. Samuel H. Webb.  The next year, Widgery ran again and this time was elected Mayor.  He took office in January 1842.  On May 24, 1842 he resigned from office.  He later served as Secretary of the Arkansas Senate (where he made $8 a day when the Senate was in session).

Widgery eventually settled in St. Louis.  He later returned up north.  He died on August 2, 1873 in Portland ME and is buried there.  He and his wife did not have any children.

No known painting or photograph of Mayor Widgery exists.

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Women Making History – Kathy Webb

While Kathy Webb has had many titles over her career in public service, Advocate for Others probably encompasses all of them.

One of the most important committees at the Arkansas General Assembly is the Joint Budget Committee.  It is chaired by a senator and a representative.  In 2011 and 2012, as a state representative, Kathy Webb became the first woman to chair the committee.  

Considering that the first woman to be sworn in to the Arkansas General Assembly (Erle Chambers) was from Little Rock, and the first woman to chair a standing committee of the General Assembly (Myra Jones) was from Little Rock, it is fitting that the first woman to chair Joint Budget was also from Little Rock.

While women had been chairing committees for two decades, no female had ever led this committee.  During her tenure, Rep. Webb received praise from people in both houses and both parties for her leadership.  She served in the Arkansas General Assembly from 2007 until 2012.  During that time, she was also named the most effective legislator by Talk Business

Now, she continues her public service in her second four-year term on the City of Little Rock Board of Directors.  She served as Little Rock’s vice mayor in 2017 and 2018. Director Webb grew up in Arkansas and graduated from Little Rock Hall High. She earned a degree from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and attended graduate school at the University of Central Arkansas. She has also participated in the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

After working in political advocacy in Washington D.C. and throughout the U.S. for several years, she spent over 20 years in the restaurant industry in Illinois, Tennessee, and Arkansas.

Her community involvement includes service on the UAMS College of Medicine Board of Visitors, Arkansas Hospice, and First United Methodist Church of Little Rock. She was the founding president of the Chicago-area affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Director Webb has been honored by the Arkansas Kids Count Coalition, Just Communities of Arkansas, Arkansas Judicial Council, National Association of Women Business Owners, Sierra Club, Arkansas AIDS Foundation, Arkansas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, Pulaski County CASA, Interfaith Alliance for Worker Justice, Arkansas AARP, Arkansas Hospitality Association, Arkansas Municipal League, Hendrix College and Black Methodists for Social Renewal.

She is the Executive Director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. The Alliance is the statewide umbrella organization for Feeding America food banks, food pantries and agencies and hunger activists and the education and advocacy clearinghouse on hunger issues in Arkansas. Earlier in 2019, it was named Non-Profit of the Year at the Arkansas Business of the Year Awards.

Women Making History: Vada Webb Sheid

Image result for vada sheidVada Webb Sheid was the first woman to be elected to both the Arkansas House and the Arkansas Senate. She was also the first woman in the Arkansas Senate who did not first succeed a husband.

Born in 1916 in Izard County, she grew up there. After graduating in high school in 1934, she attended classes in Little Rock at Draughon School of Business before returning to Izard County.  In 1940, she married Carl Sheid. Over the next few years they lived in Mountain Home, El Dorado, and Little Rock before returning to Mountain Home after World War II.

After an earlier unsuccessful race for Baxter County Treasurer in 1958, Vada Sheid was elected to the position in 1960 and served until 1965. In 1966, she was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives.  She was one of four women in the House during her first term.

Vada Sheid served in the Arkansas House through 1976. That year, she was elected to the Arkansas State Senate. She served as a State Senator from 1977 to 1985. Defeated in a bid for a third term, she was later appointed to the Arkansas State Police Commission.  In 1993, she was returned to the Arkansas House in a special election and served until January 1995.

During her service in the Arkansas General Assembly, public works and higher education projects were a major focus. She championed the construction of a bridge across Norfolk Lake as well as many other river bridges and highways in North Central Arkansas. She also pushed through the bills to establish the Mountain Home campus of Arkansas State University as well as what is now known as North Arkansas College in Harrison.

Though a staunch Democrat, she worked across the aisle to get projects completed. Her work on the Norfolk Lake bridge required lobbying of both Gov. Rockefeller and President NIxon.

Vada Webb Sheid died in 2008, but her legacy lives on.

Women Making History – Irma Hunter Brown

Irma Hunter Brown served in the Arkansas House of Representatives from January 1981 until January 2003.  She was the first African American woman to be elected to the Arkansas General Assembly in either house.

In 2003, she was sworn in as a State Senator, becoming the first African American woman in that body, as well.

In 2015, she was included in the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail.  Other honors include recipient of the Distinguished Citizen award, Philander Smith College, Little Rock, 1981; fellow, Institute Politics, 1975.

Women Making History: Myra Jones

The late, great Myra Jones was born on March 8. So today we highlight her.

Myra Jones was elected to the Little Rock City Board in 1976. She served eight years on the Board, including four years as Vice Mayor of Little Rock.  She was the first female to serve as Vice Mayor of Little Rock.  In a nod to changing times, she was the first woman to be referred to in the City minutes by her own first and last name instead of being Mrs. followed by her husband’s name.

From 1985 to 1998, she served seven terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives and was the first woman to chair a standing committee:  the City, County and Local Government Committee.

Following her retirement from the legislature, she continued in business. She served on the board of Noram Energy (formerly ArkLa) for seventeen years becoming one of the first women from Arkansas to serve on a Fortune 500 Board. She later served as a local affairs lobbyist for the real estate industry. She once again became a fixture at Little Rock City Hall until her death in 2012.

A graduate of Oberlin College, she was a lifelong musician and would return in the summer to her native South Dakota to play clarinet with the Belle Fourche Cowboy Band. She had first joined the band as a high school senior.  Once it was reconstituted in 1980, the band (complete with white chaps, white hats, and red shirts) would play for the Black Hills Rodeo in Belle Fourche, march in the Fourth of July parade, and perform concerts in the area.

Women Making History – Erle Chambers

First woman sworn in as a member of the Arkansas General Assembly: Erle Chambers.

Miss Chambers of Little Rock was elected in 1922 at the same time as Frances Hunt of Pine Bluff. But because members were sworn in based on their last names, she was actually sworn in first.

She had trained as an attorney at both the University of Arkansas and the University of Chicago, but never practiced law.  She served as Pulaski County probation officer from 1913 until 1917. At that time, she went to work for the Tuberculosis Association, where she would work until her death in 1941.

Miss Chambers served in the Arkansas General Assembly from 1923 until 1926.