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HIGH PROFILE: Mary Catherine McGowan McNulty big on historic preservation, public service

Molly McNulty is big on historic preservation and public service. She cherishes her experiences growing up in the Quapaw Quarter. by Kimberly Dishongh | September 12, 2021 at 3:23 a.m.
Molly McNulty on 09/03/2021 at Curran Hall for High Profile Cover Photo (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Molly McNulty embraces the African term ubuntu.

"It means, 'I am a person through other people,'" she says. "I think that really has shaped who I am because all of these different snippets and travel, our jobs, our community involvement, every person has made some imprint, big or small, on my life and also on what I want to do."

More and more over the years, she has come to realize that the places she has inhabited, too, are part of who she is.

"I was born in Little Rock and grew up downtown, in the Governor's Mansion District, and I have really fond memories of that," says McNulty, law clerk to Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Raymond Abramson as well as president of the Quapaw Quarter Association Board of Directors. "It was a different place to grow up, as in it wasn't your typical neighborhood where there were 10 other kids in a cul de sac that were your age. I think early on I had a good perspective that not everybody looked like you or lived in the same type [of] house you did or even went to the same school you did."

McNulty was 4 years old when she moved into the Boyle House at 2020 S. Arch St. in Little Rock restored by her parents, Circuit Court Judge Mary McGowan and lawyer Thomas McGowan.

"It wasn't like there weren't any other kids and it was this isolating place, but it was different," she says. "You had these grand historic homes that had been restored and had people with some means living in them and then a block or two down there were people who were struggling to make ends meet. And there by the grace of God go I ..."

The perspective she gained through her formative years was the topic of an essay she wrote for her admittance to Davidson College in Davidson, N.C.

"You would see then Gov. Bill Clinton running by, and when the house was hit by a tornado in '99 he came back as president and talked to us in the middle of our front yard, surrounded by Secret Service," McNulty says. "Then a block later you would see a homeless man in a wheelchair trying to get to the closest liquor store."

Her father served on the Quapaw Quarter Association Board.

"There are a lot of ties with me growing up downtown and being drawn to the history of the area," she says. "The Quapaw Quarter Association is just in my blood. I think I'm the first second generation board member."

Their family's home was on the Quapaw Quarter Association Tour of Homes twice.

The Tour of Homes, typically held over Mother's Day weekend each year, was canceled last year because of covid-19 related restrictions. Its return is slated for Oct. 2-3, in the Pettaway District, east of Main Street, in downtown Little Rock. Masks and proof of covid-19 vaccination will be required for holders of tickets, priced between $20 and $50 each. Options include a guided candlelight tour of five historic houses in the Pettaway neighborhood and champagne stations.

McNulty got involved in the Quapaw Quarter Association about five years ago and has seen the organization grow since then.

"It's not because of me, but it has been fun to watch its growth and exposure and just educating people about what the Quapaw Quarter Association is," she says.

She points to the hiring of Executive Director Patricia Blick as a factor in taking it to a new level. Blick reciprocates the praise.

"It's been a crazy year and a half, obviously," Blick says. "She took over Jan. 1, while we were still in the midst of the pandemic and she has been great to work with."


Like McNulty, Blick sees the tours as an important way to encourage people to visit neighborhoods they might not otherwise visit.

"It really changes perceptions and misconceptions," Blick says. "She brings a great perspective because she has firsthand experience of living in a historic home and in the Quapaw Quarter area."

McNulty's parents divorced when she was in her 20s, and they sold the 5,495-square-foot Boyle House over a decade ago.

"My parents loved to entertain, so we had great parties there, and being an only child, I just got to be exposed to it," she says. "There was a fabulous chapel room, as we called it, above the porte cochere, where I remember my mom and her friends playing bridge."

Little Rock's historic Central High School, McNulty's alma mater -- she graduated in 2002 -- also played a part in her upbringing.

"Central was big," she says. "I was involved, even as a high school student, in a lot of different extracurricular activities. I loved it."

Davidson's student body was substantially smaller than Central's.

"It was a perfect fit for me. I've always been drawn to people," she says. "I majored in political science, but then I realized I would have to take a statistics course and quickly switched to history, which I think is fitting because I realized it's really just the study of people who have come before."

She did a semester abroad in Santiago, Chile, and a summer at Cambridge before graduating from Davidson in 2006.

She was well-traveled even before that.


"That was a big part of my childhood, traveling a lot," she says. "I think as an only child it was just easier for my parents to take me places. I was exposed to a lot early because I just got to tag along, and that instilled in me early the love of travel and seeing other people, and I think that also goes with my being interested in learning about people, whether they're in your neighborhood or at your school or halfway around the world."

Also while at Davidson, McNulty interned in Washington for U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln and U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder.

"I knew I loved D.C. and politics and being involved. I learned early that's just part of who I am," she says. "I knew I wanted to go back to D.C., but Sen. Lincoln's office didn't have any openings so they actually sent me to a law firm, Bracewell -- at the time it was Bracewell and Guiliani."

Law school was always in the back of her mind, she says, though she wasn't certain early on what she would do with a law degree.

"It was natural to me because that's what both of my parents and their friends were," she says. "I was always drawn to it in that way, That said, a law degree is useful no matter what. It can't hurt, right?"

She was at Bracewell for about nine months as an assistant in the government relations section before getting a call about an opening in Lincoln's office.


"When I left the law firm, the managing partner made me sign on a napkin and promise that I would go to law school," she says.

He warned her that people often went to Capitol Hill and were promoted quickly and they had trouble finding time to break away for higher education, and he insisted that she make a commitment not to forget about becoming a lawyer. McNulty worked as Lincoln's executive assistant for two years, but she didn't forget his advice.

"I decided to come back home and do law school," she says.

She applied only to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law, drawn by the possibility of getting a Master of Public Service from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and a juris doctor through the joint program between those two institutions.

"I thought that was just a perfect union of both of my interests," she says.

Skip Rutherford, dean emeritus of the Clinton School, was happy about McNulty's arrival in 2009.


"She's a winner. She's smart. She's talented, thoughtful and civic-minded," says Rutherford, who runs into her now often at WordsWorth Bookstore in Little Rock's Heights neighborhood, which is co-owned by her father. "When we developed the concurrent law and public service degree at the Bowen Law School and at the Clinton School of Public Service, we hoped not only to attract top students who were looking at both law and public service but to bring back those like Molly who had left the state. She was on track for a great future, and I'm glad that she and her husband, Chris, are now part of Arkansas' future."

As part of the Clinton school program, she was to do a public service project during a summer abroad.

"You figure out where in the world you want to go and what public service you want to do and you make it happen," she says.

McNulty went to Cape Town, South Africa, to work in the Desmond Tutu Peace Center.

"We did service projects down there and [Archbishop Desmond Tutu] was there in the office," she says. "He would come in a couple of times a week and have tea with us. He had a great laugh. He was joyous."


McNulty's mother visited during her stay there, and they went on a safari together.

"We flew back on my 27th birthday, and we landed and I had a voicemail on my cellphone because I didn't have any reception out in the Bush. It was from the archbishop's secretary saying that the archbishop and Mrs. Tutu wanted to invite Mama and me over for dinner, so he actually hosted my 27th birthday with my friends in South Africa, my mother and his family. It was basically the best birthday of my entire life."

McNulty lived with a family in an apartment behind their home in Cape Town and took public transportation to get to her job, involving education of girls.

"We got to go to different schools and interact with kids," she says. "They have 11 national languages in South Africa and their national anthem is beautiful because it encompasses several of them. We went to a school and my mom was visiting at the time and they sang their national anthem and it was beautiful. It brought tears to our eyes."

McNulty and her mother were then asked to share their own national anthem.

"We have notoriously awful voices," she says. "Mom and I got through it and they were nice to not cover their ears. I'm sure they're still talking about the two blonde women singing this awful song."


She mentioned to some of the people she encountered that she wanted to come back to Cape Town on her honeymoon because of its beautiful mountains and shorelines.

"They said, 'Oh, you're engaged?' I said, 'No, I don't even have a boyfriend, but this is fabulous," says McNulty, who didn't meet her husband, Chris, a partner at Mitchell Williams Selig Gates & Woodyard until after she had moved back to Arkansas for law school.

They went to New Zealand and Australia on their honeymoon instead.

"Australia is my sixth continent to visit -- I'm still lacking Antarctica, but I will get there someday," she says. "I do want to take my children back to South Africa and visit Cape Town. It's just a very special place."

Catherine Alexander, with whom she stayed in Cape Town, is still in touch.

"The Desmond Tutu Leadership Trust commemorates the outstanding anti-apartheid work done by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and continues this work into building the new, democratic South Africa," Alexander wrote in an email. "I was immediately touched that a young American person, Molly, would come all this way to help build our country. Her true democratic principles shone through, and she showed herself to be a caring and resourceful nation builder."

Sabrina Lewellen met McNulty through their service in the Junior League of Little Rock.

"During my president-elect year I was in Leadership Greater Little Rock and Molly was also in my class," says Lewellen, who was president of the Junior League in 2017-18.


They are purposeful about maintaining their close friendship, meeting for lunch often. In the early months of the covid-19 pandemic, they scheduled lunch dates and met in parking lots, rolling their car windows down so they could chat while they ate.

"Molly McNulty is one of the most poised, polished and prepared human beings I have ever met," says Lewellen, deputy director and assistant secretary of the Arkansas Senate.

Lewellen says she doesn't like to talk about herself and turns the tables on interrogatory conversation at every opportunity.

"She doesn't allow that," she says of her McNulty. "She will circle back with questions and she has a great recollection about my family or things that I've got going on. When I go to dinner or lunch with her I know that I have to talk and share and that I will feel heard, and I love that about her. It's a rare gift and practice nowadays."

McNulty's interest in people and her childhood lessons on diversity have driven her parenting choices.

Her son, Tom, is almost 4, and her daughter, Mary Carter, is almost 2. She and husband Chris opted to send them to Access School so they can begin to understand early on that people may look different and have different abilities as well.

"They are classified as 'typical' but they're integrated in classes with kids with Down syndrome or who have a speech impediment or need to go to occupational therapy one day a week," she says. "It really is phenomenal.'"


Chris McNulty has long been a volunteer for Access, sharing his wife's passion for public service.

McNulty thinks she might want to run for office at some point.

"Public service is important to me," she says. "I'm a big believer in making a community -- it sounds trite but -- making it better than you found it, however you can, whether or not that's as an elected official or volunteering at your kids' school or picking up trash on the side of the road, however you can contribute."

For now, her focus is on historic preservation.

"I think for a long time there was a misconception that we were like a neighborhood association," she says. "We went through a whole rebranding process a few years back trying to expand it so that people understand it's about preservation of any historic property. It doesn't have be downtown or in the Governor's Mansion District or in Pettaway, where the tour is. It could be in Park Hill, or Hillcrest or somewhere else."

She wants people to know the Quapaw Quarter Association is not an exclusive group.

"You don't have to live downtown to be active. It's really for anybody who cares about preservation and wants to be involved. We welcome them," she says. "People may feel like, oh, that doesn't apply to me, but really, it does. It applies to everyone."

Print Headline: Mary Catherine McGowan McNulty


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