Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area

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LR Women Making History – Nancy Rousseau

Though not a graduate of Little Rock Central High School, Nancy Rousseau is a Central High Tiger through and through.

She has been principal of Little Rock Central High School since the summer of 2002. Born in New York, she graduated high school in Tenafly, New Jersey.  After attending Ohio University, she graduated from Adelphi University with a degree in English education.  Her first job was teaching in Port Washington, NY, where she won the “New Teacher of the Year” award.  After teaching in Midwest City, Oklahoma, she arrived in Little Rock in 1976.

From 1976 until 1986, she taught English at Pulaski Academy.  After receiving her master’s degree in educational administration from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, she was hired by the Little Rock School District as an Assistant Principal at Central High School.  From 1991 until 1998, she served in that capacity. During that time, she worked on the planning for the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High by the Little Rock Nine.

In 1998, she became principal of Pulaski Heights Junior High School.  She led the school’s transition from a junior high to a middle school.  When the position of Central High School principal became open in 2002, she applied for the job.

Since returning to Central as its principal, Mrs. Rousseau has been a very visible champion of the school, its students, faculty and alumni.  She served as co-chair for the Central High Integration 50th Anniversary Commission.  During her tenure, the school’s physical plant has been upgrade and much of the historic façade and interior has been restored.  A Central High Alumni Association and a Tiger Foundation have been formed.  Through their effort, the arts, academics and athletics have been enhanced.

Mrs. Rousseau also participated in the planning for the 60th anniversary of the school’s integration.  She is one of a very few who worked on the 40th, 50th and 60th anniversaries.


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LR Women Making History – Jeannette Edris Rockefeller

Jeannette Edris Rockefeller only lived in Arkansas for about fifteen years. But her impact on the cultural life of Little Rock and all of Arkansas continues to be felt today.

Born and raised in Seattle, as a young mother she met Winthrop Rockefeller while both were in New York.  He moved to Arkansas in 1953; after their 1956 marriage, she joined him. They split their time between Little Rock and Petit Jean.

In 1959, she was asked to become involved in plans for a new art museum in Little Rock.  She became a tireless advocate and fundraiser for the new Arkansas Arts Center.   In 1960, she assumed the role of president of the Arkansas Arts Center Board of Trustees, a position she held until 1968.  During that time period she oversaw the planning, construction and opening of the building.  She also invited Townsend Wolfe, who she had met when he taught some classes at the Arts Center, to apply to become the museum’s first executive director.

From 1967 to 1971, she was First Lady of Arkansas.  In that capacity, she supervised renovation of the Governor’s Mansion and started the tradition of displaying art on the walls.

Shortly after her 1971 divorce from Rockefeller, she relocated to California.  She continued to be a supporter of the Arts Center.  One of the galleries in the Arts Center is named in her honor.  In addition, one of the sculptures on the lawn of the Arts Center, Standing Red, was dedicated in 1970 in recognition of her service on the Arts Center Board.

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LR Women Making History – Charlotte Stephens

Charlotte Andrews Stephens was the first African American teacher in the Little Rock School District.  Between 1910 and 1912, when an elementary school for African Americans was named after her, she became the first woman to have a public building in Little Rock named after her.  For nearly fifty years, Stephens Elementary (which is now in its third building) would be the only LRSD building named after a woman.

Born into slavery, Charlotte Stephens was educated first by her father who ran a private school in what is now Wesley Chapel UMC.  At the age of 15, she started teaching at the Union School to finish out the term of a white teacher who had become ill.  She taught for 70 years, retiring at age 85 in 1939.

From 1870 to 1873, she attended college at Oberlin College, though not always every semester. (It is possible she was the first African American woman from Arkansas to attend college, but that cannot be verified.)  During her career with the LRSD, she taught students in all grades. She was twice principal of Capitol Hill School, and later headed the high school Latin Department.  At the time of her retirement, she was librarian of Dunbar High School.

The land on which Stephens Elementary now sits was once owned by Charlotte Stephens.  She donated the land and attended the 1950 dedication of the second Stephens Elementary.  That building was torn down in 1994 to make way for the current Stephens Elementary.  Some of her grandchildren attended the dedication of the new and current Stephens Elementary.

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LR Women Making History – Louise Loughborough

Louise Loughborough was the first woman to serve on the Little Rock Planning Commission.  Not only was the she first woman to serve on this body, she was the first to serve on any City commission other than the Board of Censors or Library Board.  Born Louisa Watkins Wright in Little Rock 1881, her ancestors included many early Arkansas leaders including Little Rock Mayor David Fulton.

In 1935, Loughborough was appointed to the Little Rock Planning Commission, and it was in this role that she first heard about the plan to condemn the half-block of houses that she had grown up admiring on Cumberland and East Third streets. Although the neighborhood had fallen on hard times, becoming a red-light district and slum, Loughborough feared the loss of several historic structures, including the Hinderliter House, the oldest building in Little Rock and thought to be Arkansas’s last territorial capitol. She mobilized a group of civic leaders to save these buildings. She enlisted the aid of prominent architect Max Mayer and coined the term “town of three capitols” to try to capture the imagination of potential supporters, grouping the “Territorial Capitol” with the Old State House and the State Capitol.

The Arkansas Territorial Restoration opened on July 19, 1941. The project was the first Arkansas agency committed to both the restoration of structures and the interpretation of their history, and it served as a model and inspiration for historic preservation in the state. Around the same time, she was a moving force behind the creation of a museum at the Old State House as well.  Today both Historic Arkansas Museum (as the Territorial Restoration is now known) and the Old State House Museum are agencies of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.

As founding Chairman of the Arkansas Territorial Restoration Commission, Louise Loughborough provided daily direction for the museum house complex through the first twenty years of its existence. She died in Little Rock on December 10, 1962 and was buried at Mount Holly Cemetery.

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LR Women Making History – Janis Kearney

Janis Kearney is the only person to have held the title of U.S. Presidential Diarist. In 1995 she was appointed to that position by President Bill Clinton.

After graduating from the University of Arkansas, she was hired by the State of Arkansas as a program manager.  Nine years later, she became managing editor for the Arkansas State Press. She later purchased it from owner Daisy Bates.

In 1992, she took a leave from the paper to work on the Clinton presidential campaign.  Following the election, she worked in the transition office, the White House, and the U.S. Small Business Administration until her appointment as Presidential Diarist.

In 2001, she moved to Chicago and started working on a book, while also having fellowships at Harvard and DePaul.  In 2004, she founded Writing Our World Press and published her first book, Cotton Field of Dreams.  Her Clinton biography, Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton-From Hope to Harlem was published in 2006.  Since then she has also published a novel, a biography of Daisy Bates, and the second part of her memoirs.

She is also active in the Celebrate! Maya Project. This program seeks to honor and promote the inclusive literacy, creativity, and social consciousness of the life and work of artist and activist Maya Angelou.

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LR Women Making History – Mimi Dortch

Madalyn “Mimi” Breitzke Dortch, was known for getting worthwhile projects off the ground.

She was a founder along with dear friend Cliff Baker, of the Arkansas Repertory Theater; hosted the first Arkansas Opera Theatre outdoor perforomance at her home Marlsgate, was a founder along with Helen Walton of Arkansas Committee of National Museum of Women in the Arts, and was the Director of AIC Choir Camp at Subiaco for 22 years.

When Baker had the idea for the Rep, she made use of her personal connections and helped form the first Board of Directors.  She served as an ambassador for the Rep and theatre in general.   Throughout the rest of her life, she would be a stalwart supporter of the Rep.  Her interest in theatre had been nurtured while she was in college.  Her interest in founding community endeavors had been inherited from her father who founded the North Little Rock Boys Club.

The AIC Choir Camp was originally founded by Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.  She oversaw the transition to it being under the auspices of the Arkansas Interfaith Conference of Churches and Synagogues, which she led.

There were few art forms or art organizations in Little Rock and Arkansas that Mimi Dortch did not attend or support.

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LR Women Making History: Stella Boyle Smith

When Stella Boyle Smith died at the age of 100 in 1994, she was well known for her love of music and philanthropy.  It is a lasting connection of her to a building in which she spent so many hours as an arts patron.

Smith was a Little Rock philanthropist and founder of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. She lived to be 100, but ensured that her legacy would continue.  In her lifetime, she donated more than $2.5 million to organizations in the music and medical fields.  Since her death, the Stella Boyle Smith Trust has donated more than $5 million.  One of its most recent gifts was the sculpture In the Wings which graces the front of Robinson Center.

She was born in Farmington, Mo., into a large, musically inclined family, which moved to Arkansas when she was two. She began singing at the age of three and graduated from high school at 14. In 1922, she moved to Little Rock with her first husband, Dandridge Perry Compton, who died in 1935. Her second husband, George Smith, held various business interests and extensive farms in Woodruff and Arkansas counties, which allowed them to engage in philanthropy. Mr. Smith died in 1946.

In 1923, Smith’s love for music inspired her to start The Musical Group in her living room of her residence at 102 Ridgeway Drive in Little Rock, where she lived until she died. Through several iterations, the group eventually became the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in 1966. Her initial objective was to establish the symphony as an educational tool for children, and, in 1968, she helped establish the Youth Orchestra. In 1972, the symphony board of directors named her an honorary life member. Smith established a trust fund for the symphony’s permanent endowment in 1985. A loyal friend of music and the symphony, she attended nearly every performance and most rehearsals.

Smith was also a pianist. In 1988, she gave UALR a grand piano as well as an endowed trust of $500,000. When she purchased the grand piano for UALR, a Steinway, she later on the same day purchased a Steinway for herself.  She remains the only individual to purchase two Steinway grand pianos in the same day. UALR renamed its concert hall the Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall as a tribute to her. That year the university also gave her an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. Interest from the trust provides scholarships each year for music students studying string instruments, piano or voice.  After she died, her personal Steinway was given to UALR.  The music faculty and students now lovingly refer to the two pianos as Stella and George (after her and her husband).

Smith enabled many students around the state to attend college through the more than 200 scholarships that she financed.

Other organizations that have benefited from her generosity include Arkansas Arts Center and Historic Arkansas Museum as well as the University of Arkansas.