Colleagues recall Daniels love of state Capitol during memorial tribute

Memorial held at Capitol, where he worked for 40 years

Secretary of State John Thurston presents Marsha Harbert, daughter of Charlie Daniels, with a citation during Daniels’ memorial tribute Friday at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Colleagues of the late longtime state-elected official Charlie Daniels recalled Friday that improving and maintaining the state Capitol and the surrounding grounds was a top priority for Daniels during a memorial tribute in the state Capitol rotunda.

Daniels died Sunday at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center. He was 83.

The Bryant Democrat served as the state's land commissioner from 1984-2002, secretary of state from 2002-2010 and state auditor from 2010-2014. He also served as director of the state Department of Labor under Govs. David Pryor and Bill Clinton, after serving on the Parker's Chapel School Board. He served four years of active duty in the United States Air Force and 15 years in the Air Force Reserves.

At the outset of the memorial tribute that drew more than 100 people, Republican Secretary of State John Thurston said he was honored to host the ceremony "in the building that Charlie loved so much and he dedicated so much of his public service to this facility."

Janet Harris, who worked for Daniels in the land commissioner, secretary of state and state auditor's offices, said Daniels worked in and around the state Capitol building for more than 40 years.

"For me, the Arkansas State Capitol will always be synonymous with Charlie, and I wouldn't have it any other way," she said.

Harris said Daniels proudly oversaw many historic preservation projects in the Capitol building.

Daniels insisted that the secretary of state's office employees take "exquisite care" of the state Capitol building and the surrounding grounds because "it was the people's house [and] he wanted it to look good," she said. "He wasn't above picking weeds out of the flower bed or showing the grounds crew how to properly water the lawn. Nothing escaped his notice.

"His attentiveness kept us all on alert too," Harris said. "When we worked for him, we felt responsible for this place as we should."

State Democratic Party Chairman Grant Tennille, speaking on the behalf of former Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, said Daniels "really programmized and systemized" taking care of the state Capitol building and the surrounding grounds and "making what it is now."

He credited former Republican Secretary of State Mark Martin and Thurston "for continuing that same well-organized and meticulous work.

"This is one of the finest state Capitols in the country," Tennille said.

Harris said Daniels was "warm and genuine" and that's one the reasons that people were drawn to him.

"He just loved everyone, and he loved to do good for people," Harris said.

Harris, executive director and chief executive officer of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, said "many of us owe our start in public service to Charlie.

"He was confident in all of the young people that he hired, even if we weren't always confident in ourselves," she said. "He had a way of appreciating us, valuing us, thanking us and supporting us."

Harris said a recently departed former colleague once said that "working for Charlie was like working for your dad. He treated you like family and you wanted to make him proud."

She said "we worked hard, we served well, and we had a good time."

Harris said Daniels was a Democrat on the campaign trail and "served everybody" as a state-elected official.

Thurston, who served as land commissioner from 2011-2019 and has been secretary of state since 2019, said Daniels' calm and charming demeanor made people feel accepted, "and that's exactly how he made me feel the first time I met him.

"I was new to politics when I first met Charlie," Thurston said. "His encouraging words and non-combative spirit was a sense of comfort in a sometimes hostile arena, which is politics, and that is just who he was."

Daniels' grandson, David Harbert of Fayetteville, said he always loved that Daniels always remembered the people that he met.

"Everywhere I would go I would hear, 'Hey Mr. Charlie?' and he would respond back like they were best friends," he said. "What a superpower to have. He just resonated with everyone. He always met a person at their level. He never felt above or superior to anyone."

Harbert said Daniels poured his heart and soul into Arkansas.

The memorial tribute was held at the state Capitol with the the United States flag and the Arkansas state flag at half-staff Friday in tribute to the memory of Daniels and an expression of public sorrow under a proclamation issued by Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Chris Villines, executive director of the Association of Arkansas Counties, read the governor's proclamation.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, and Thurston read citations from the Senate, House and secretary of state's office, respectively, and Nikki Heck, a spokeswoman for the state land commissioner's office, presented Daniels' family with Arkansas and United States flags that Heck said were flown Thursday.

Those attending the memorial tribute included Republicans Lt. Gov. Leslie Rutledge and Land Commissioner Tommy Land, and Democrats former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, former Attorney Generals Dustin McDaniel and Steve Clark, former Secretary of State Sharon Priest, and former Land Commissioner Mark Wilcox.

"He would have loved this reunion," Harris said.

  photo  Secretary of State John Thurston gives the welcoming remarks Friday during Charlie Daniels’ memorial tribute at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)