At the age of 87, J. N. Heiskell in 1960.
John Netherland (J. N.) Heiskell served as editor of the Arkansas Gazette for more than seventy years. He was usually called “Mr. Heiskell” by all, but a very few confidantes felt confident to call him “Ned.”
Mr. Heiskell is the person most responsible for Robinson Center Music Hall being located at the corner of Markham and Broadway. As Chair of the Planning Commission and editor of the Arkansas Gazette he had twin bully pulpits to promote this location when those on the City Council (who actually had the final say) were looking at other locations. He felt the location would help create a cluster of public buildings with its proximity to the county courthouse and to City Hall. Mr. Heiskell finally succeeded in winning over the mayor and aldermen to his viewpoint.
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 chosen by the Arkansas General Assembly. His tenure is the shortest in the U. S. Senate history. His first speech on the Senate floor was his farewell. He was also only the second US Senator to live to be 100.
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.
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.
Mr. Heiskell donated his vast papers to UALR. They are part of the Arkansas Studies Institute collection. These papers give insight into not only his career as a journalist, but also his political and civic affairs. Thankfully he saved much of his paperwork. Without it, much insight into Little Rock in the 20th Century would be lost.