Ex-lawmaker Hammerschmidt, 92, dies
Lumberman was state’s first GOP congressman since Reconstruction
BILL BOWDEN ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
John Paul Hammerschmidt, the Harrison lumberman turned congressman who helped build the state’s modern Republican Party and an infrastructure that energized Northwest Arkansas’ economic development, died Wednesday at Regency Hospital in Springdale. He was 92. Since mid-February, Hammerschmidt had been in four different hospitals — at times in intensive care — because of heart and respiratory problems, said his son, John Arthur Hammerschmidt, 65, of Harrison. “I spent every day in the hospital with him for the last six weeks and didn’t tire of it whatsoever,” John Arthur Hammerschmidt said Wednesday. “I just couldn’t do enough for him. … “This morning I told him — I don’t know if it registered or not — I just wanted to thank him for being the greatest dad that ever could be and I could never repay him for all he’s done for me over the years.” John Paul Hammerschmidt was the first Republican elected to Congress from Arkansas since Reconstruction. He served Arkansas’ 3rd Congressional District from 1967 to 1993. For decades the only Arkansas Republican to hold federal elective office, Hammerschmidt will go down in American political history for beating Bill Clinton in the future president’s first bid for public office. In Arkansas, Hammerschmidt will be remembered as one of the state’s longest-serving public officials, with a tenure span-
ning six presidencies and 26 mostly noncontentious years. Hammerschmidt took pride in the completion of projects he championed such as Interstate 49 and Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, but he always maintained that it was helping individual people that gave him the most joy as a public official. “We were all put on Earth to serve others,” Hammerschmidt said in a 2005 interview, “and being a congressman gives you a lot of leverage to really serve a lot of people.” PRAISE FROM AFAR As word of Hammerschmidt’s death spread, public condolences poured forth from Arkansas politicians, past and present. “I am saddened by the passing of John Paul Hammerschmidt,” Clinton said in a statement Wednesday. “I learned a lot about people and politics when we ran against each other in 1974. The biggest factor in his victory was how hard he worked to help the people he represented with their individual problems. His casework was legendary, and he kept it up throughout his long career. “I hope his legacy will prompt more officials to keep the human element of public service in mind. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and his many friends across Arkansas and the nation.” Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, a Democrat, said he had gone through some old photos on Tuesday, reminiscing about the time when he was in the Senate and Hammerschmidt was in the House. “Generations from now, when people define the gold standard of public service they will be thinking of the life and dedication of John Paul Hammerschmidt,” Pryor said. “He was truly a person who lived for public service every day of his life — not only in the military, but in business, community affairs and as a distinguished congressman. He’s made deep footprints into our state and we have all lost a friend.” U.S. Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Rogers, said he conferred with Hammerschmidt before deciding to run for Congress in 2001. “I followed in his footsteps, which were very good footsteps to follow if you wanted to be in public life or just a good human being,” Boozman said. “I’ll never forget how he told me that when the election is over, there aren’t any Republicans or Democrats any more. There are just the people of Arkansas, who you are to serve. He was always trying to help his fellow man.” Boozman was Arkansas’ 3rd District congressman for almost a decade before being elected to the Senate in 2010. U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican who now represents the 3rd District, said he was at an event in Pindall when he heard Hammerschmidt had died. “John Paul Hammerschmidt was a statesman and one of our most steadfast advocates — he always put Arkansas first,” Womack said. “As the lone Republican in our delegation for many years, John Paul proudly fought to protect Arkansas’ conservative values in Congress while working bipartisanly to bring critical transportation infrastructure to the 3rd District, enabling Northwest Arkansas’s explosive growth.” U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Dardanelle, noted Hammerschmidt’s impact on the Republican Party and Arkansas’ infrastructure. “His contributions to Arkansas’s infrastructure system were invaluable and his legacy lives on in highways, waterways, and bridges across our state,” Cotton said. “John Paul Hammerschmidt was also a Republican leader for Arkansas in an era when not too many others were. His leadership and commitment to the Republican Party of Arkansas paved the way for every Republican elected official in Arkansas today.” Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who served as the state’s 3rd District congressman from 1997 to 2001, said Hammerschmidt was an “icon of Arkansas and Washington politics.” “He balanced his conservative convictions with a unique ability to work across party lines and accomplish great things for the people of Arkansas …,” Hutchinson said. “On a personal note, John Paul was a mentor of mine. I was privileged to hold his seat in Congress, and I called on his wise counsel and advice countless times. I will miss him greatly. The state has lost a true statesman and a good man.” DIDN’T WANT TO RUN John Paul Hammerschmidt was born on May 4, 1922, in Harrison to Arthur Paul and Junie M. Hammerschmidt, according to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. John Paul was the fourth of five children, according to the website. Both sets of grandparents migrated to Boone County in the early years of the 20th century and were of German descent. His paternal grandfather began the Hammerschmidt Lumber Co., which his father and later Hammerschmidt himself managed. Hammerschmidt’s family settled in a modest house on the outskirts of Harrison, and he attended public school there, graduating from Harrison High School in 1938 at the age of 16. A decorated combat pilot in World War II, Hammerschmidt returned to Harrison with the idea, shared among fellow war veterans, that the state would benefit from a two-party system. Hammerschmidt said he was drawn to the Republican Party because he wanted government to stay out of people’s way and that he never agreed with “the so-called religious right.” Hammerschmidt was chairman of the party when Republicans were looking for someone to run for Congress in the 3rd District, and he ended up running “sort of accidentally” in 1966. Late in the decision-making process, at a brainstorming session, someone suggested that he run. Hammerschmidt initially rejected the idea. “I said, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to be a prima donna. I don’t mind supporting one, but I don’t want to be one.’” But Winthrop Rockefeller, who would successfully run for governor the same year, encouraged him to think about it, and Hammerschmidt decided to do it. He unseated U.S. Rep. Jim Trimble, a Democrat, and took office in 1967, the first Arkansas Republican to carry a federal election in the state in the 20th century. When he was elected, the 3rd District was huge, covering 24 counties — a third of the state, from Hope and Hot Springs to Mountain Home and Bentonville. Hammerschmidt started working in his five district offices on the weekends, meeting with people sometimes 12 hours a day, feeling a need to prove that he could stand in as a “court of last resort” with the federal government. “People would say, ‘Well, a Republican can serve as well as a Democrat can serve,’” he recalled. “I think that had more to do with building the party than anything — communication with people.” KEY COMMITTEES Hammerschmidt credited being on the right congressional committees with allowing him to arrange for the bricksand-mortar improvements such as highways and airports and one of his proudest accomplishments, the “twin” bridges over Norfork Lake. After flying C-47 cargo planes in the China-Burma-India theater and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, Hammerschmidt had a lifelong fascination with airplanes and transportation in general. It became a niche of sorts while he served in Congress. He would say that committee work was like graduate school, and his master’s degree was in all things transportation. That would serve Northwest Arkansas well, even in the years after he left Congress. In a retirement that became full-time work he served on corporate and university boards and became a regional lobbyist of sorts. But Hammerschmidt said what stood out for him from his career, aside from the enjoyment he got from helping individuals, was writing the public law that added the Buffalo River to the National Park System in 1972. Once he’d decided to side with the conservationists that the treasured river should remain a free-flowing stream, he made enemies who worked to defeat him. But he took pride in slowly rekindling friendships with some of those people. Hammerschmidt had been particularly vulnerable in 1974, not only because of the Buffalo River stance but also because his party was tarnished after Watergate and President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Still, Hammerschmidt held on, with 52 percent of the vote, earning the distinction of being one of two people to ever beat Clinton in an election. The second was former Gov. Frank White in 1980. Hammerschmidt was a third-generation owner of the family lumber company his grandfather founded. Even after 40 years in and out of Washington, Hammerschmidt still considered himself a lumberman. “We’re not Washington people,” he said, “even though we’ve been there a long time.” Hammerschmidt spent his “retirement” years pushing Northwest Arkansas economic development projects. He was the longtime chairman of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a group of business and civic leaders who promote economic development projects. The council was the driving force behind the formation of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority, Hammerschmidt said in 2005. The $107 million airport opened in 1998 in Highfill. “Arkansas has lost a great man, and the people of Arkansas have lost a great friend,” said state Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, a former director of the Northwest Arkansas Council and, before that, the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District. Lindsey began working with Hammerschmidt in 1966, when both lived in Harrison. Art Morris, an airport board member, said he first met Hammerschmidt in 1956 and served with him on the board of the Area Agency on Aging in Harrison. “He was always a great, community-minded individual,” Morris said. “He had a wealth of knowledge on everything, great insight. He was one of the big proponents of the regional airport.” Hammerschmidt was a “lifetime trustee” of the University of the Ozarks at Clarksville and a former chairman of the board of trustees at Arkansas State University. North Arkansas College in Harrison provided the former congressman with a replica of his Washington, D.C., office in the John Paul Hammerschmidt Business and Conference Center on campus. Hammerschmidt served on boards for American Freightways (now Fed Ex Freight), Dillard’s Inc., Southwestern Energy Co. and First Federal Bank (now part of Bear State Bank). Hammerschmidt’s wife, Virginia, died in 2006. They were married for 57 years and had one son, John Arthur, who is retired after spending 18 years with the National Transportation Safety Board and two years with the Transportation Security Administration. The younger Hammerschmidt is a former chairman of the safety board. John Arthur Hammerschmidt said his father fell in the kitchen in April 2014 and broke his pelvis. The younger Hammerschmidt said he lived with his father for the past year, initially to help him recuperate, and later because he just didn’t want to leave. “He’s really my everything,” John Arthur Hammerschmidt said Wednesday. “I was just happy as a clam to be here helping my dad.” Information for this article was contributed by Laura Kellams, formerly of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and Doug Thompson and Ron Wood of the NWA Democrat-Gazette.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette John Paul Hammerschmidt, shown in September, served as the state’s 3rd District congressman from 1967 to 1993, spanning six presidencies.
John Paul Hammerschmidt (from left) and then-Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller sit with then-President Richard Nixon, U.S. Sen. John McClellan, Sen. J. William Fulbright and then-Rep. George H.W. Bush, R-Texas, during “The Big Shootout” between Arkansas and Texas at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville on Dec. 6, 1969.
Democrat-Gazette file photos John Paul Hammerschmidt, a decorated military pilot and dedicated transportation advocate, joins then-President Bill Clinton for the dedication of Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in November 1998. Hammerschmidt defeated Clinton in Clinton’s first run for public office. With them is Will Van Laningham at age 8.