Victor ‘Vic’ Nixon, longtime Arkansas pastor, dies at 82

The Rev. Victor "Vic" Nixon, then the pastor of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church, is shown in this March 3, 2010 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)
The Rev. Victor "Vic" Nixon, then the pastor of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church, is shown in this March 3, 2010 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)

Standing amid his father's berry brambles, surrounded by thorny canes and oppressed by the summer sun, a young Lavaca Methodist named Victor Harmon Nixon asked the Lord to deliver him.

"Dear God," he later told his wife he recalled praying, "If you will ever let me get out of this boysenberry patch, I will do anything for you."

"Anything" ended up being decades of faithful service as a preacher of the gospel.

The Rev. Victor "Vic" Nixon, who died Tuesday at age 82, would go on to minister in communities across Arkansas, including an 18-year-stint as pastor of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in Little Rock.

"God took him up on his offer," his daughter, Aubrey Nixon, said Friday.

Skip Rutherford, a longtime member at Pulaski Heights, says Nixon was a wonderful storyteller with a gift for ministry, a commitment to social justice and an abiding love for those he served.

"He was a healer. He was a bridge-builder. He was a kind and decent human being. He stood tall for equal opportunity for everyone," Rutherford said. "He always looked for the good in people and had just so much influence on people's lives."

The eldest child of Harmon Lib Nixon and Flossie Louise Rankin Nixon, Nixon was born June 26, 1940, at his paternal grandparents' home outside Lavaca and grew up in Sebastian County.

His father was a part-time berry-grower and a full-time post engineer at Fort Chaffee, the area's sprawling Army base.

On Sundays, they worshipped at Lavaca Methodist Church, where his dad taught Sunday School and his mom was active in the women's group.

After graduating from Lavaca High School, Nixon attended Hendrix College in Conway, where he earned a bachelor's degree in history and political science in 1962.

Between classes, he met and fell in love with a student from McGehee named Frances "Freddie" Henley. They married on June 23, 1962, a union that would endure over the next six decades.

For a time, Nixon struggled with whether to attend law school or seminary.

His uncertainty ended, however, after a stint as youth director at Clarksville Methodist Church.

Ministry, he discovered, was his life's calling.

It appealed to him, Freddie Nixon said, because "he loved people and he loved the church."

Rather than studying jurisprudence, Nixon enrolled at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, serving as a student pastor when he wasn't immersed in his studies.

Methodists in Eustace, Payne Springs and Pickens Spur, 65 miles or so southeast of Dallas, were the first to benefit from his schooling.

Upon graduation in 1967, he returned to Arkansas, accepting a series of appointments that took him to Fayetteville, Berryville, Shiloh, Jonesboro, Batesville, Russellville and Little Rock, with stints in between as associate director of the North Arkansas Conference Council on Ministries and director of Arkansas Cooperative Parish Ministries.

While in Berryville, Nixon encountered a young Democratic congressional candidate named Bill Clinton.

They became lifelong friends.

"Vic Nixon was a wonderful human being and a fine, caring and compassionate pastor," the former president said Friday.

"Our friendship began 49 years ago. I was just starting out in politics and I met Vic and Freddie on my very first campaign swing through Carroll County, where he was a big help to me. In 1975, when Hillary and I got married in the living room of our little house in Fayetteville, Vic performed the ceremony. We saw him often when I was governor and stayed in touch ever since," Clinton said.

"Hillary and I will always be grateful for his wise counsel and his big heart," Clinton said.

Although Bill Clinton's 1974 campaign to unseat U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt fell just short, the 1975 Clinton-Rodham marriage proved long-lasting. The Nixons were on hand to help the Clintons celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary at the White House in 1995.

After faithfully serving congregations of all sizes, Nixon was tapped in 1992 to lead Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church, one of the largest in the state.

During his 18-year tenure, the congregation grew and its campus expanded. By the time he retired, membership had climbed to 4,000.

It had gotten more youthful as well, with the average age of the congregants falling from 57 to 38.

That did not happen by chance.

Nixon had stressed the importance of reaching young families. He pushed for expanded ministries, renovated Sunday school classrooms and a playground, too.

"You cannot have weekday children's ministries without a playground," Nixon told the Democrat-Gazette in 2010. "And very shortly after that we began to make plans for weekday children's ministries and after-school ministries and that led younger folks to come into the church. So, all the expansion and all the building have come about since that time -- we had to make space for the babies."

With 1,000 people a week attending services, the congregation had to add a parking deck to accommodate the crowds.

Toward the end of his tenure, the church even built what it dubbed the Nixon Disciple Center, named in his honor, which housed a computer lab and a movie theater boasting a professional-grade popcorn machine and comfy theater seating.

Nixon's messages went beyond the church walls. Pulaski Heights' Sunday services are televised, and he preached the sermon every year at Little Rock's Easter sunrise service.

Over the years, he served on the Hendrix College board of trustees and volunteered with the Red Cross and the Arkansas Alzheimer's Association. He was a member of the West Little Rock Rotary Club and the Christian Ministerial Alliance.

An opponent of capital punishment, he was a member of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, not only advocating legal changes but also visiting inmates on death row.

After retiring in 2010, he continued to live in Little Rock, though he frequently visited the family's lake house on Greer's Ferry Lake.

He was prepared to find a new church home, but stayed at the urging of his successor, Britt Skarda.

"Britt called and ... he said 'it's time for you to come back,'" Aubrey Nixon recalled.

"They named him pastor emeritus, which was a way of saying 'it's all right for you to hang around,'" Freddie Nixon said. "It was a blessing."

Nixon enriched the life of the church long after his official retirement, Skarda said.

"He was a member of the chancel choir and was a great contributor. He also led a book group, the Nixon Book Group that was a wonderful discussion-oriented group, and he taught classes and did various and sundry things in the life of the church," Skarda said.

Nixon was good with people, he noted.

"Whenever you were with him, you felt like you were the only person in the room. ... He made you feel valued," Skarda said.

Jay Clark, the executive pastor, said the congregation was thankful to have Nixon as a part of the church family.

"He was a wonderful, caring pastor. A great listener," Clark said. "He loved the people, and the people loved him and the staff loved him."

Nixon's family will gather to inter his ashes in the Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church columbarium. A public celebration of Nixon's life is scheduled for 11 a.m. June 26 at the church.

Nixon leaves behind a legacy of service that will long be remembered, Skarda said.

"He certainly left a mark not only on Arkansas United Methodism but also on this city and this state," he said.

 Gallery: The Rev. Victor “Vic” Nixon, 1940-2023

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