George Olin Jernigan Jr., a former Arkansas secretary of state, Democratic Party chairman, and Little Rock attorney and lobbyist, died Sunday. He was 79.
Jernigan nurtured a lifelong love of politics, which "was his job, but also his hobby," said Russ Meeks, a longtime friend and former law partner. He served as secretary of state for two years after being appointed to fill the role when Kelly Bryant died in office, and he unsuccessfully ran against former President Bill Clinton for the office of Arkansas attorney general.
Later, he chaired the state's Democratic organization from 1991-94, during which Clinton -- then the governor, and also a Democrat -- campaigned for and was elected to the presidency.
"He was a good man and a good citizen, and a friend of mine for over forty years since we ran for attorney general," Clinton said in an emailed statement.
Jernigan was born in Little Rock and attended college and law school at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where he was a drum major and a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity. He continued to be active with the latter organization throughout his life, serving in national roles and as a chapter adviser, counseling young people on a first job or their entry into politics, said Meeks, who was also a member.
"He was always a mentor to many people that are very successful right now in our state. ... He had that love of service to try and help people that were coming up," he said.
After finishing his degrees, Jernigan served as a captain in the U.S. Army in Washington, D.C., before entering legal practice. He was general counsel for now-defunct Ward Industries in Conway and for Arkansas Health Care Association, and was very active in pushing for changes that helped improve nursing home care in the state, said Bob Smith, a law school friend who practiced with Jernigan for several years.
According to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette archives, Jernigan made a lasting mark on the state Capitol grounds in 1976, when he planted an Eastern red cedar that was designated the Jernigan State Christmas Tree. It still stands and was added to the Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree register in 2009.
He also was the second chairman of the Political Animals Club, a Pulaski County group that discusses state politics, according to The Arkansas Encyclopedia of History and Culture.
"George's legacy and impact spanned decades, and the state was better for it. He was up there with the greats of Arkansas politics," the Democratic Party of Arkansas said in a statement. "[He] will be missed but his good work endures."
Jernigan never married, but he was invested in his family, which had roots in northeast Arkansas, and the beagles who were his companions, Meeks said. He remembered Jernigan as a voracious reader and "real gentleman," who "treated everyone with dignity and respect, no matter who they were or what they had done."
In 1998, Jernigan had a stroke that left him with speech issues and paralysis on one side of his body. But he maintained a positive attitude and was thought of as an example to other people who also were recovering from strokes, Meeks said.
After his stroke, he received care at the Briarwood Nursing & Rehabilitation Center and the Parkway Village nursing home for many years, where Meeks says Jernigan was well-known enough to have been dubbed "the mayor" of those facilities.
"I think that everybody that knew George will remember him," Smith said. "[He] was a great guy."
Metro on 02/27/2019