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HIGH PROFILE: Jo Ellen Maack helping preserve Arkansas’ history, one dress at a time

At 36, Jo Ellen Maack started college and learned about the world of material culture. Now she is helping preserve Arkansas’ history, one dress at a time. by Rachel O'Neal | November 14, 2021 at 3:24 a.m.
Jo Ellen Maack on 10/29/2021 at the Old State House Museum for a High Profile cover (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)


Jo Ellen Maack's eyes give away what is possibly her favorite exhibit within the Old State House Museum at 300 W. Markham St. in downtown Little Rock -- the display of clothes worn by Arkansas' first ladies.

Maack, curator of the museum, is too diplomatic to pick a favorite exhibit within the walls of the oldest standing state capitol building west of the Mississippi.

But she has a story to tell about each item donated by a first lady. There's Anne McMath's 1950s-era campaign dress, which Maack found at the bottom of a plastic tub donated by McMath's daughter. A bit down the way there's Gay White's heavily beaded gown that she wore twice -- once to Gov. Frank White's inauguration and again to President Ronald Reagan's inaugural ball.

A show-stopper is the gown Eula Terrell wore in 1925. It is too fragile to hang with the rest of the gowns, so it lies inside a glass case. (More behind-the-scenes tidbits on some of these gowns in a minute.)

Maack has stories about seemingly all of the exhibits at the museum. Heady stuff for a woman who grew up in the Meadowcliff neighborhood of Little Rock and once had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. In fact, she didn't go to college until she was 36. It was at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock where she found her true passion.

"I never dreamed that I would get to go [to the first lady's exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's] storage collection, and I am standing there, and there are Jacqueline Kennedy's gloves and Lincoln artifacts," she says. "I am just standing there with this incredible history, and I never dreamed in a million years that this little girl from Little Rock, Arkansas, who loved reading history books when she was 7 years old would be looking at the first ladies' artifacts."

SOUTHWEST LITTLE ROCK GIRL

Maack is the daughter of Dorothy and Bill Maack. When she was 6, her family moved to the Meadowcliff neighborhood into a new, 1950s ranch-style house. Her neighbor had turquoise appliances. The Maacks' appliances were copper-toned brown.

"We loved it there. The school was maybe five blocks away. You walked to school. You knew everybody. It was just an idyllic neighborhood," she says.

Bill Maack was a Little Rock assistant police chief and a graduate of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. Jo Ellen was the baby of their four children. "My siblings were all my heroes."

Sister Bonnie taught school more than 35 years. Brothers Johnny and Billy followed in their father's footsteps as police officers. Johnny's twin sons were also police officers. In all, the Maack family has more than 144 years of combined service as police officers.

Jo Ellen Maack graduated from McClellan High School and took a job at Metropolitan National Bank in account services. After five years, she took a job at the Arkansas Gazette, becoming, she says, the first female hired in outside sales. She was in a man's world and had to "stand up for myself -- period."

She was promoted several times at the Gazette. She was at the newspaper for 13 years, until its owner, Gannett Co. Inc., closed it and sold the newspaper's assets and name to Little Rock Newspapers, Inc., now Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.

"I was out of a job that I thought I would have forever. My marriage had ended, and I was like, 'What am I going to do with my life?'" she says.

The answer came from her mother who told her, "You can have a pity party for 24 hours and that's it. Then I want you to get up, make a decision and go on."

NEW DIRECTION

Maack took advantage of a grant to go to college and enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in January 1992. To make ends meet, she accepted a job from one of her old newspaper clients as a waitress at Murry's Dinner Playhouse.

At UALR, she found able professors who wanted to help her.

"I wanted to learn, and I was just like a sponge soaking all of this up," she says. "I was so eager, but I had to work twice as hard because I was older than the kids."

A history professor introduced Maack to the "world of material culture -- the study of objects" as well as museums. "I didn't even know there was such a thing," she says.

She was working on a master's degree in public history but soon learned that jobs in public history are few and far between. So she interned or volunteered everywhere she could find a spot -- volunteering at the Old State House Museum and Historic Arkansas Museum, a scholarship for a week at Colonial Williamsburg and a three-month internship at the McFaddin-Ward House Museum in Beaumont, Texas.

When she returned to Little Rock, she was given a paid assistant position at the Department of Arkansas Heritage and later an internship at Historic Arkansas Museum.

She then got a full-time job as the administrative assistant -- aka secretary -- at the old State House Museum. She started on Feb. 12, 1996. "I took it because it got my foot in the door," she says.

While working there, she obtained her master's degree. She was promoted to the museum's registrar, cataloging almost 50,000 artifacts in the collection and making sure everything is insured and properly described.

Registrars "are the keeper of the flame of every artifact. I got to know the collection, and I could tell where every artifact was," she says. At that time, everything had to be moved out of the building because the foundation was sinking and had to be shored up.

Also at that time, her beloved father was dying of cancer.

"My dad was a very humble man and we'd ask him what he did in the war, and he'd say, 'Nothing. I went over there and did my job. Nothing to talk about.'"

After he died, Maack opened his lock box at his bank and found an envelope. Inside were five Bronze Stars. She did a lot of research and learned that he had landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, was at the Battle of the Bulge and at the liberation of concentration camps in Germany.

"He never told us. He would have nightmares. I remember when I was a little girl he would wake up yelling, but he never told us any of this."

MEET THE CURATOR

In 1999, Maack became curator of the museum -- the same year the building was reopened to the public after its renovation.

She has many insider stories to tell including this one: In 1996, when President Bill Clinton made his second acceptance speech at the museum, he emerged from an empty building. Maack recalls she was "guarding a tree."

"In 1992, we had some problems with the media," she says of Clinton's first acceptance speech. "They were told they needed to respect the lawn and the trees and the historic property, and some of them didn't quite do that."

She guarded a tree close to the fountain in front of the Old State House. That is the tree that photographers climbed in 1992 to get photos of Clinton. In 1996, she says, she was offered bribes by national photographers to get her permission to climb the tree -- the first was $200 but the offers went as high as $1,200. She remained steadfast in her refusal.

"They were not going to climb that tree," she says. She admits she had some help from a Secret Service agent to make sure it didn't happen.

The first thing Maack does when this reporter enters the museum is offer a tour. The building first opened its doors in 1836 and Maack quickly -- almost too quickly -- starts running through interesting facts. She goes from room to room telling the history before entering the temporary exhibit "Play It Loud; Concerts at Barton Coliseum." The first room of this exhibit is filled with guitars and album jackets, many of which Maack bought at record shops and online.

The first thing that catches the eye is concert tickets under a glass box. But not just any concert tickets. Shown is just a fraction of the 9,000 tickets in the collection for the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert that was supposed to have happened Oct. 22, 1977, at Barton. Many people returned their tickets after the concert was canceled after a charted flight carrying the band crashed near the end of its flight from Greenville, S.C., to Baton Rouge on Oct. 20. Three band members died.

Ticketholders who didn't cash in won a mini jackpot.

"I had a ticket to this concert and, like an idiot, I took mine back and got my money back," she says. Tickets are now selling on eBay for $200. The tickets originally sold for $6.

"Play It Loud" will be on exhibit until December 2022.

"Jo Ellen Maack is one of my favorite people in the world," says Doug White, the previous general manager of the Arkansas State Fairgrounds, who worked closely with Maack on creating the exhibit. Barton Coliseum is on the fairgrounds.

"She's smart, funny, witty and one of the most devoted curators I've ever known. The coliseum exhibit was her brainchild. ... I was proud to work with her," White says.

In another part of the museum, Maack shows off a collection of Arkansas State Police memorabilia. She says the large number of artifacts in the collection demonstrates that the State Police had the foresight to preserve its history.

"I am so proud of them for doing it," she says. "They saved a lot of the gambling items from Hot Springs from the Vapors and the Southern Club. ... It's history, and I never want to see history destroyed."

AND THE FIRST LADIES

Next up -- "First Ladies of Arkansas: Women of Their Times," a permanent exhibit. Maack has too many stories to tell about the gowns, but here are a few.

First off, that gown that Gay White wore twice? While White was in a car headed to the White House, the heavily beaded dress was in danger of losing some of its beads. Ever resourceful, White had a small sewing kit in her handbag and asked her governor/husband for a hand in sewing them back on.

"She wasn't able to do it herself, so she made Frank White sew the beading on her dress. So, as they were pulling into the White House, Gov. Frank White is sewing the beading."

Frank White died May 21, 2003. Gay White has since remarried, to Bill Sigler. Gay White Sigler confirms the story, saying Frank learned basic sewing skills while at the Naval Academy.

"She is a joy to work with," Sigler says of Maack. "She is just very passionate about what she does to preserve Arkansas' history, and she is very knowledgeable. ... You can't help but admire someone like that. Her passion for preserving history is inspiring, and she has inspired me to preserve history."

Sigler says Maack wanted to showcase the personalities of the first ladies and so asked for personal items. Among other things, Sigler -- an avid hiker -- donated a pair of hiking boots she wore in the Grand Canyon. The boots fell apart when she reached the bottom of the canyon, but she patched them up with duct tape. The old boots now live behind glass at the exhibit.

Not far away is a mannequin wearing embroidered jeans and an embroidered shirt that Barbara Pryor wore on the campaign trail for her husband, Gov. and U.S. Senator David Pryor.

Next to it is the gown she wore for her husband's gubernatorial inauguration in 1975.

"We were standing here and looking at it, and she said, 'Jo, you don't ever have to worry about laundering it. It is all polyester. A blowtorch couldn't kill it,'" Maack recalls.

Then there is Anne McMath's cotton dress. Maack says she had long heard about a dress that McMath wore on the campaign trail that had campaign paraphernalia painted on it depicting Gov. Sid McMath's first term in office. She finally found the dress when one of McMath's children donated their mother's dresses to the museum.

"That is one of my highlights," Maack says. "I found it at the very bottom of a plastic tub that her mother had packed so neatly. I need to write these down because I have stories for almost all of these beautiful gowns, and I am so grateful that these women invited me into their homes to tell me their stories."

Around the corner in the exhibit is Janet Huckabee's gown, worn to the Jan. 12, 1999, inauguration of her husband, Gov. Mike Huckabee. The cabaret wine-colored silk gown has a fitted halter vest and a floor-length skirt.

"When I hear the name Jo Ellen Maack, my first thought is her smile," Janet Huckabee says. "Jo Ellen has always seemed to be the happiest person and absolutely loves her job. She has been a tremendous workhorse for the Old State House, bringing the museum into the 21st century with an amazing digital display of Arkansas' first families and the restoration of this nation's largest display of State First Ladies' gowns."

Ginger Beebe donated two pairs of shoes -- the ones she had planned to wear and the sneakers she had to wear to her husband Mike Beebe's inaugural ball. Ginger broke her ankle before the 2007 event.

"Both current and future generations will miss Jo's wisdom and historic perspective," Ginger Beebe speculates about the day Maack retires. "Her passion for the 'First Families' exhibit has brought Arkansans closer to their history when they visit the Old State House. Her in-depth aspects of Arkansas history will be missed."

Maack -- who curated "First Families: Mingling of Politics and Culture" -- says that when the day comes that she decides to retire, she may no longer be physically in the building, but her heart will remain with preserving Arkansas' history.

"If we don't preserve Arkansas' history for future generations, then it is gone," Maack says.


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