STANLEY RUSS: 'UCA has been important to me my whole life'

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

Stanley Russ didn’t earn a degree from the University of Central Arkansas, but the school has been part of his life for nearly all of his 81 years.

Russ, the former state senator whose name graces the mass communication building at UCA, will be honored, along with James Bridges, the late film producer, director and screenwriter, with the 2012 Distinguished Alumnus Award at the Night of Distinction Gala and Awards Ceremony on Saturday, May 12, at the UCA HPER Center.

“UCA has been important to me my whole life,” said Russ, who attended elementary school on the campus at the Arkansas State Teachers College Training School, where “we were the guinea pigs for the practice teachers. This is where I started my formal education.”

After he was elected to the Arkansas Senate in 1975, UCA became his constituent during his long tenure, which ended in 2001. He received an honorary doctorate of public service from UCA on May 1, 2004.

“Personnel-wise, education-wise and professionally, I’ve had a close association with UCA,” Russ said. “I’ve never felt — and I’m saying this honestly — I’ve never felt I deserved any of this recognition, but I think this one probably tops the list of most undeserved. But it’s an extremely high honor and appreciated.” 

Russ was born in Conway on Aug. 31, 1930, the youngest child and only son of O.S. Russ, a dairyman, and his wife, Gene Browne Russ, an English literature teacher at Conway High. His older sisters are the late Laura Alice Love Benignus of North Carolina and Joann Austin of St. Louis. The family farm in South Conway featured about 200 acres (which now includes the Hewlett-Packard facility) where the Russ family raised Jersey dairy cattle.

The young Russ met many lifelong friends during his years at the Training School, including student teachers Nell McGregor Scott and Marjorie Hutchison Fain. 

Through high school, he was active in the Future Farmers of America. He was chosen Star Farmer for the State in 1947 or ’48 — he can’t remember which — and was featured on the front page of the late Arkansas Gazette. The bull he showed was named grand champion at the Arkansas State Fair, and his prize was a registered Jersey heifer named “Miss Arkansas Gazette,” for the sponsor of the contest.

He joked about the headline, which read something along the lines of, “Conway boy’s bull wins prize.”

He was elected state FFA president and earned an all-expenses-paid scholarship to Arkansas Tech to study agriculture. At that point, ASTC did not offer agri studies, so after he graduated from Conway High in 1948 he headed to Russellville, where he ran for student body president at the end of his freshman year and lost by one vote. Tech’s agri program was then two years, so after four semesters he transferred to the University of Arkansas in the fall of 1950.

He married his high school sweetheart, the former Nina Benton, on Feb. 2, 1951, and spent that spring as a student at ASTC before transferring back to Arkansas that fall. Nina Russ, who died in 2005, earned what was then a home economics degree at ASTC in 1954 and is memorialized by the Nina Russ Scholarship through the UCA Department of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Stanley Russ had been deferred from the military to finish his degree. He graduated from the U of A in 1952; his mother earned her master’s degree from the U of A that same year. Afterward, he was drafted to serve during the Korean War. He went through basic training at Fort Chaffee and Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, Okla., where he was commissioned a second lieutenant and served for a year as an instructor at Fort Sill. He was discharged in July 1954 to begin his career.

“All the time, I’d intended to be a farmer or a vo-ag instructor, but after two years in the military, I decided I wanted to be my own boss,” he said, chuckling. “I was tired of being bossed around. Not having any capital, the best thing and nearest thing was the life insurance business.”

He remembered that he took a position with the Southland Life Insurance Company that Jeff Farris — who later served as president of UCA — vacated when he decided to get back into education. Russ was an agent for Southland Life in Conway and was later brought into the home office in Dallas to travel the Southwest recruiting and working with new agents. After that, he became Southland’s state agency manager for Arkansas before becoming an independent agent with Stanley Russ Life Insurance Service in Downtown Conway’s Halter Building beginning in 1960.

The couple lived in various homes in Conway before building a home on the family farm in 1972. By then, they had two children, daughter Debbie and son Stan Jr. He and Nina built another home on the property in 1992; daughter Debbie Merritt and her family live in the previous one.

In 1972, Sen. Guy (Mutt) Jones, who had been elected to the state senate from Faulkner County in 1946 and had risen to become, according to the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, one of the most influential state lawmakers of the post-World War II era, was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of income tax evasion. He was convicted in 1973 and expelled by the Senate in ’74. 

Russ ran in the special election to finish Jones’ term. The district by then also included Van Buren and Conway counties, the latter of which was controlled by Sheriff Marlon Hawkins.

“We had a political machine that pretty well ran things, and I wanted to make a change,” Russ said. “Conway County had 5,500 votes in the election; I got 500 and my opponent (Bill Sanson) got 5,000. Faulkner and Van Buren County carried me.&rdq

One of his first actions in the Senate was helping to change the name of the school that had by then become State College of Arkansas. Rep. Bill Stephens wrote the bill that changed the name to the University of Central Arkansas; Russ carried the bill in the Senate. The school became UCA on Jan. 21, 1975.

Dr. Win Thompson, who served as UCA president from 1988-2001, said Russ was always a crucial supporter for the school during his legislative tenure, especially when he served as chair of the Joint Budget Committee.

“Following years of enrollment growth, UCA’s per-student appropriations were the lowest of the two-year and four-year state institutions, and as chair Stan was our champion in efforts to rectify that imbalance,” Thompson said. “I should mention, too, that the expansion and renovation of the AETN-UCA complex, supplemented by the grant from the Don Reynolds Foundation, would not have been possible without him. He was a pleasure to work with both in the legislature and in community development efforts of various kinds.

“He was always a gentleman — professional, knowledgeable and congenial.”

Russ never had another opponent before being term-limited out in 2001. 

“I had about made up my mind it was time for me to step aside even without term limits,” he said. “I served a lot longer than I ever dreamed I would when I went in.”

He ran for the Second Congressional District seat in 1984. Tommy Robinson won that election to replace Ed Bethune.

Looking back over his senate career, which included a stint as president pro tempore in 1995-97, Russ said the highlight would probably be when, while serving as acting governor, he created the Congressional Medal of Honor Commission.

“From that they built a monument to Arkansas recipients, and John Deering designed the eagle in flight and the memorial on the east side of the capitol grounds,” Russ said.

Gov. Jim Guy Tucker appointed him to lead the Arkansas delegation to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1996.

Russ’ term as senate president coincided with one of the most unusual times in Arkansas history. After Tucker was convicted of felony fraud charges stemming from the Whitewater investigation in 1996, he announced that he would step down, which would have elevated Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee. As president of the senate, Russ was in the governor’s office on July 15 to receive Tucker’s resignation letter as the General Assembly was convening in a joint meeting.

“He kept me waiting 10 or 15 minutes, and in a little bit Jim Guy gave me this letter saying he’d recalled his letter of resignation,” Russ remembered. “He was not stepping down as governor; he was stepping aside temporarily. And so he handed it to me and said, ‘You understand what I’m saying?’ and I said, ‘Governor, I think I understand it, but I don’t think it’s going to work.’”

Tucker told him to take the letter to be read to the joint session, which adjourned almost immediately, Russ said. 

“I was in a meeting with Huckabee and his group, and he was not going to accept that,” Russ said. “Nobody was going to accept it, the Democrats and certainly not the Republicans. We huddled all afternoon and kept getting communiqués from Tucker until finally some of his heavy hitters convinced him to step aside.”

Russ called that the most bizarre day of his 26 years in the legislature.

As it turned out, had Huckabee gone through with his earlier plans to run for U.S. Senate in ’96, Russ would have ascended to the governor’s office in the wake of Tucker’s resignation.

“I would have run for my own term afterward,” he said. “It turned out good for the state that I did not.”

He said he had “a great relationship” with both Tucker and Huckabee.

He only misses his time in the legislature, he said, “when there’s an issue on the table where I would like to have some influence.”

“I miss some of the camaraderie, but I’ve enjoyed my life after politics,” he said. “The summation of my life is a song I heard recently. I’m a greatly blessed, highly favored, imperfect but forgiven, child of the King.”