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OPINION | REX NELSON: The three builders

by Rex Nelson | June 15, 2022 at 3:51 a.m.


It was 1927, the year of the Great Flood that devastated Arkansas' cotton-based economy. The Little Rock School Board decided that year to begin offering junior college classes at Little Rock High School at the urging of John Larson, the school's principal. The University of Arkansas had stopped offering extension courses in Little Rock, and Larson felt the state's largest city should have college courses available.

The school district provided classrooms at no charge with the provision that tuition would pay for maintenance and teacher salaries. What became Little Rock Junior College moved to the next level in 1929 when former Gov. George Donaghey and his wife created a foundation to support the school. Donaghey, who was born in July 1856 in Oakland, La., had little formal college training (he spent one year at UA), but he became one of the foremost education advocates in Arkansas history.

Donaghey's family moved to Lapile in Union County in 1858. Donaghey worked on the family farm and then spent three years in Texas, including four months on the Chisholm Trail as a cowboy. He moved to Conway in 1880 and spent almost three decades in the city.

"He became a carpenter and used this skill as a springboard into building and contracting, constructing residences and other buildings in Arkansas and Texas," the late Cal Ledbetter wrote in the book "Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives." "By 1890, Donaghey was successful enough to become a full-time contractor. ... Donaghey was a major participant in bringing higher education institutions to Conway. He contributed $1,500, one-third of his assets at the time, to a fund started by townspeople to move Hendrix College to Conway in 1890.

"Likewise, Donaghey was on the building committee and pledged $5,000 to bring Central College for Women to Conway. Donaghey was also in charge of fundraising to bring Arkansas State Normal School (now the University of Central Arkansas) to Conway. It was the third college to locate there during this period. Donaghey was active in local politics. He was part of the campaign to drive saloons out of Conway because no college at that time would consider operating in a town that had saloons."

Donaghey became wealthy as a railroad contractor in the early 1900s and moved to Little Rock in 1908. That was the year he first ran for governor, defeating William F. Kirby, a former attorney general, in the Democratic primary and Republican John Worthington in the fall. Donaghey received 71 percent of the vote that November. He was re-elected in 1910 with 69 percent. Donaghey ran for a third term in 1912 and was defeated by Congressman Joe T. Robinson in the primary.

In 1929, Donaghey transferred ownership of the Donaghey Building and Federal Bank & Trust Building to LRJC. Valued between $1.5 million and $2 million, it was among the most generous gifts ever in Arkansas.

The school's next major benefactor was Raymond Rebsamen, a Little Rock business leader who was the subject of Saturday's column.

"In Little Rock, Rebsamen started a number of small businesses, primarily focused on accounting, insurance (Providential Life Insurance, Rebsamen Insurance), real estate (Eagle Realty) and printing (Arkansas Printing & Lithography, International Graphics, Favorite Check Printers)," Andrew McClain wrote for the Arkansas State Archives. "These companies were organized under a holding company, Rebsamen Companies Inc., which at its peak held more than 25 corporations started by Rebsamen.

"Rebsamen expressed a strong sense of civic obligation and established the Rebsamen Fund, to which he expected his family and various enterprises to make annual contributions in order that they might 'consistently participate ratably in all worthwhile civic, religious, educational, fraternal and cultural community efforts,' as Rebsamen wrote toward the end of his life."

In 1947, Rebsamen donated 80 wooded acres along a gravel road known as Hayes Street for what's now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus. LRJC became Little Rock University in 1957 and UALR in 1969.

"Rebsamen owned land on the other side of Hayes Street as well," McClain wrote. "In 1953, developer Elbert Faucett purchased 190 acres from Rebsamen and began development of Broadmoor, the first suburban development of its kind in Little Rock and possibly the first in the nation to be advertised with all homes having central heating and air. Rebsamen's hunting lodge on Belmont Drive was later used for neighborhood association meetings.

"In 1954, Rebsamen donated $30,000 to the city for a 27-hole municipal golf course close to the Arkansas River. The course still bears his name. He purchased the Little Rock's Zoo's first elephant, Ruth, named after his daughter, in 1937. In 1954, the zoo's next elephant was named Ellen after Rebsamen's granddaughter."

The other business leader to have played a key role in UALR's development was Gus Ottenheimer, who became known for manufacturing women's garments and working as a land developer. Ottenheimer was a founder of Associated Industries of Arkansas, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Arkansas Economic Council. He headed a task force in the 1950s to make LRJC a four-year institution.

Ottenhimer served on the UALR Board of Visitors from 1969-72. He never married or had children, leaving assets to the Ottenheimer Foundation.

With UALR struggling mightily in recent years, it must be asked who the next Donaghey, Rebsamen or Ottenheimer will be in the life of this important Arkansas institution.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.


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