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story.lead_photo.caption Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, is shown in this file photo. - Photo by Gavin Lesnick

Rita Sklar, who served as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas for nearly 30 years, has retired.

With Sklar at the helm since 1993, the organization took on high-profile cases that included abortion restrictions and fostering and adoption rights for LGBTQ couples.

Sklar, 59, said "it was just time" to retire, although she said she believes there is still work to be done for civil liberties in Arkansas.

"I still do think we've made progress as a state," she said Tuesday. "Although I think it's kind of a battle of the forces of progress and regression in Arkansas, people trying to keep us backward, and it's hard to tell which side is winning."

Holly Dickson, legal director of the ACLU of Arkansas, has been appointed interim director. Dickson has worked for the affiliate since 2006.

Dickson didn't provide a timeline for when a search for Sklar's successor would begin but said it would be "very soon." When asked if she was interested in taking the lead long-term, Dickson said she was focused on "paying respect to Rita and all the work she's done."

Dickson said Sklar would be honored in the fall, to coincide with events commemorating the Arkansas chapter's 50th anniversary.

"She is feisty, tenacious, compassionate, brilliant. Just a leader and a voice for all people," Dickson said. "She has consistently been a voice for all rights granted to all people, which can be a very complicated and broad umbrella."

Sklar grew up in the Bronx in New York. After earning a bachelor's degree from Hunter College of the City University of New York, she found a job at the national office of the ACLU in New York by pure luck, she previously told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

She was assistant to the ACLU director of public education from 1989 to 1991, when her then-husband got a job at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. She was hired as interim director of ACLU Arkansas in 1992, then executive director in 1993.

She inherited a five-digit budget and a staff of one, according to the article, but over the years the affiliate added positions and built up its presence in the state.

Kary Moss, director of affiliate support and nationwide initiatives for the ACLU, said the Arkansas chapter remains one of the smallest in the nation but one of the most powerful nonetheless.

"So often the most important civil-rights issues unfold in the South, in a place like Arkansas where the boundaries of the law are tested, new issues are introduced in the legislature," Moss said. "The ability to respond on the ground immediately can be very important."

Sklar said battles that stood out during her career included working to secure parenting rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people and abortion access for women in the state.

In 2008, an ACLU case in Arkansas guaranteed that sexual orientation would not be a factor in state decisions about foster parenting and adoption. That was years before the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry.

This year, the group filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Planned Parenthood and Little Rock Family Planning Services to challenge three new Arkansas laws that would restrict abortion in the state.

Following the ACLU of Arkansas' announcement that Sklar was retiring, Arkansans who worked with Sklar described her as fierce and compassionate.

Bettina Brownstein, who has served as a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Arkansas for more than 30 years, said Sklar is "smart, passionate, dedicated" and "totally committed to the mission of the ACLU and the betterment of furthering Constitutional rights and human rights in Arkansas."

"We'll miss her," Brownstein said.

John Burnett, director of the ACLU of Arkansas board's legal committee, said Sklar's retirement marked the end of an era, though he was hopeful a future director would continue holding feet to the fire.

"Rita has had sort of an unerring sense of civil liberties values," Burnett said. "She knows how and where and when to fight."

Sklar said she plans to continue to support the ACLU, but hopes to spend more time with her family in retirement. She has twin granddaughters who are nearly 2 years old and live on the East Coast. She also enjoys fishing and canoeing on the Buffalo River.

Metro on 07/16/2019

Print Headline: ACLU's state director retires

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