Oct. 3 is a date many residents of Cleburne County and the state of Arkansas will always remember.
On that date in 1963, President John F. Kennedy arrived to dedicate Greers Ferry Dam. On that date this year, former President Bill Clinton came to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the dam’s dedication, an event held despite a government shutdown that began Oct. 1 that affected U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects, including Greers Ferry Lake. Clinton referenced the shutdown several times during his speech.
Both presidents drew large crowds gathered at what is now called the John F. Kennedy Overlook. This year’s crowd probably included as many schoolchildren as adults. Area schools brought busloads of students to witness the occasion, which Corps planners highlighted as an educational event, with many sponsors setting up displays in tents.
In his remarks, Clinton acknowledged “three people who told me I had to come here today — your county judge, … my friend Joe Gerard … and Carl Garner, whose annual [Greers Ferry Lake and Little Red River lakeshore cleanup program] was our way of marking the passage of the years in Arkansas when I was governor. He told me if he lived to see the 50th anniversary, I had to show up. And I understand he saved this podium for us, and I am grateful.”
Garner, 98, was sitting in the audience, on the front row, with his wife, Jean. Now retired after a 58-year career with the Corps, Garner was chief engineer when Greers Ferry Dam was built in 1963.
“For the young people who are here … for their sakes, we should put this day into the context of what this day was like 50 years ago,” Clinton said.
“When President Kennedy was here with … the Arkansas congressional delegation, I had recently turned 17,” Clinton told the approximately 5,000 spectators. “The Depression, which lasted 11 years till the outbreak of World War II, … was fresh in the minds of everybody who got up here and spoke. The war was fresh in the minds, … and for the members of our congressional delegation, all of whom were older than President Kennedy, they remembered what we did and did not do between the wars.
“Kennedy, who had lived in England, thought about the failure of the years between World War I and World War II. So even though he was just a boy growing up, the years from World War I to 1963 were embedded in his experience, in his mind, his imagination — a very different time than most of us have experienced.”
Clinton went on to say that when President Franklin Roosevelt visited Arkansas during the Depression to celebrate the state’s centennial in 1936, his route was mapped out in advance. Clinton said the people of Arkansas were proud and wanted everyone along the route to paint their houses, but there was not enough paint.
“So the people along the route at least painted the front of their houses to show respect for the president and self-respect for their communities involved,” Clinton said.
“All this stuff was all a part of our life,” Clinton said.
“At the time, we believed that for all of our political differences, we could only survive the tough times and make better times if, in the end, we found some way to come together, some way that benefited everybody who was willing to work hard.
“Somehow, if President Kennedy were here today, he’d ask us to try to get that done again. He’d be about Carl Garner’s age, even a little older. But he’d still be talking, as he did 50 years ago, about the future.”
Describing Kennedy’s visit to Greers Ferry Dam, Clinton said, “There was a lot of fighting going on [nationally].
“[Then-Gov. Orval] Faubus had to host President Kennedy. They were on polar opposites on the civil-rights debate. So what happened?
“Kennedy was gracious to Faubus by talking about how they both believed in land conservation, and [Kennedy] complimented what Arkansas had done and how it reinforced what he was trying to do and what Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt had tried to do.
“Faubus, who didn’t like the president, brought his father along, who did,” Clinton said. “Orval Faubus’ father (Sam Faubus) was the most liberal public figure in the history of Arkansas.
“Sam Faubus was so happy to be there, and after this ceremony, they had a little lunch, and Orval Faubus was responsible for hosting the president. So he made sure his daddy sat next to the president and they could have a talk.
“Why am I saying this?” Clinton asked. “Because they were trying to figure out how to make things work. They never, with all the fights they had going on, would let the government shut down or let the country default on its debt and hurt us in the face of the rest of the world.
“This country has had a lot of tough political fights. Everything John Kennedy did and said here was existing at the same time as these brutal political battles over whether we would have a civil-rights act, whether we would have a voting-rights act, whether we would have an open-housing act.
“So here we are, fighting over the voting rights act again after 50 years.
“This is normal,” Clinton said. “This is what has always shaped America. But what makes a democracy work is that if there are some things that people decide they won’t do, even though they can, because it compromises the future of our children and the character of our country.
“There’s some set of forces that reminds us none of us are perfect, none of us are right or wrong all the time, but we do have an obligation to give our kids a better chance to shape their futures and live their dreams. And that requires us, sooner or later, to get the show on the road.
“I say this because of the young people who are here, … people who have more tomorrows than yesterdays. Those of us who have more yesterdays than tomorrows, … we owe them a future.
“If you read President Kennedy’s speech (which was printed in its entirety in the 50th anniversary program), you realize that he was obsessed with trying to honor the future. You realize that he believed that between World War I and II … we had a depression, and we drove the world into a second world war because people neglected that, because people thought we did not have to work together to build a future, because we thought everything would just take care of itself and we could go about our business and have our fights or pursue our own destinies.”
Clinton said Kennedy’s life lesson was that “he knew the way to avoid having things like that happen in the future was finding a way both to continue vigorous debate, and eventually to come together and build a common future.”
Clinton said the United States is a more diverse country than it’s ever been.
“It’s our meal ticket to the 21st century,” he said. “We can’t get away from the rest of the world, and the real great test of our time is whether we can build a common future of shared responsibilities and shared prosperity, or we’re going to build a common future of constant conflict without nobody finally saying, OK … we can keep fighting about this, but how can we get the show on the road?
“John Kennedy died one month and 19 days after he left this podium,” Clinton said. “He could not have known that he just had that long to live. He gave an enormous amount of thought to what he wanted to be doing when he was my age now and even older, but it was not to be, and because his life was claimed too soon, in death, he became for all the rest of us … the symbol of the eternal future, the symbol of what we always have to become and that America was always going to be a country on the move, always becoming, always redefining itself, not having no political debates, not having no fights, but always finding a way to find something we agreed on, something we should continue fighting on and some way to keep moving together into tomorrow.
“So for the rest of my life, since you were kind enough to have me here today, whenever I drive over one of these bridges, I will remember a president who took time to be with young people, … who took time to come down here, … who took time to share his life’s conviction … that the future does not happen by accident. It is chosen by real-life, flesh-and-blood, imperfect-but-well-motivated people.
“It will always remind me that our obligations … are to give our children, our grandchildren … that future. We are going to share it, and the question is, ‘What will we share?’ and that is ours to determine.
“John Kennedy said that on this day, extolling this fabulous project, and that is the lasting gift that his life and his death gave us.”
Before Clinton spoke, Gov. Mike Beebe addressed the crowd.
“Virtually everybody in this audience and countless thousands of others who aren’t here have, in one form or another, enjoyed the benefits from this dam and from this project,” Beebe said.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on that lake, and how many more times I plan to be on that lake. I can’t tell you how many fish I’ve tried to catch, and didn’t, on the Little Red River,” Beebe said.
“President Kennedy was prophetic when he talked about coming back and flying over … in 10 years and seeing the progress this investment has made for our people.
“Unfortunately, he didn’t get to see that, but we are all beneficiaries of it — and not 20 years, not 30 or 40, but 50 years later — and I would argue with you that this has just begun, and the growth will continue for generations to come.”