John L. Ward, author of “The Arkansas Rockefeller” and a trustee of the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust, has been named UALR’s 2011 “Distinguished Alumnus.” He will be honored at this spring’s annual ceremony on Friday, May 13, announced Christian O’Neal, director of the university’s Alumni Association.
A one-time high school band director, Ward was married, the father of two children, and a full-time reporter at the Arkansas Democrat while finishing his B.A. degree requirements at night at what was then Little Rock University. He graduated in 1968, a year before Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller signed legislation creating UALR and making it a part of the state university system.
“It was the most satisfying academic experience of my life,” Ward said of his time at UALR. “It was a great learning environment. They treated you the way you should be treated – that you were not out there for any other reason than to get an education and go out in the marketplace and use it.”
In between classes at LRU, Ward covered the state for the Democrat, delving into the ins and outs of the creation of the Arkansas River lock and dam system. He covered the 1959 fire at the state-run Negro Boys Industrial School at Wrightsville, where 21 boys between the ages of 13 and 16 died in a dorm room that had its doors padlocked on the outside.
He covered the March 12, 1960, crash of a Little Rock Air Force Base jet into the Heights neighborhood, where the nose landed in Allsopp Park, incinerated several homes, and where the sole surviving crew member landed in a tree in the 500 block of Midland Street.
During central Arkansas’s school integration crisis in the late 1950s, Ward and a Democrat photographer were surrounded by angry segregationists at their rally in Pine Bluff but were able to walk away unharmed when the photographer vowed to record the situation.
“I would say I had the best job in journalism in Arkansas, without a doubt,” Ward said, crediting his editor Marcus George. “Marcus would say, ‘make your own assignments, make your own photos, and go where you want, and we will publish your stories.’”
One of those stories – a series about a schizophrenic man in the state mental hospital – caught the attention of Jeannette Rockefeller. When Winthrop Rockefeller began scouting about for someone to work with him who knew and understood the media as he prepared to run for governor, his wife suggested John Ward.
Rockefeller sent a plane to Central Flying Service to pick up Ward for an interview at Petit Jean. It was Ward’s first airplane ride. After agreeing to come to work for Rockefeller’s campaign, Ward boarded the private plane for the trip back to Little Rock.
“Shortly after takeoff, there was a loud flapping noise, and it was obvious the pilot was concerned. I know I was,” Ward said. “It turned out my jacket was caught in the door.”
His stories of the famous and the infamous – photographing President John F. Kennedy in Heber Springs at the dedication of Greer’s Ferry Lake, attending a White House briefing with President Jimmy Carter, and receiving death threats and national accolades as a journalist, editor, author, and political advisor – marked his career.
A one-time professional saxophone player who still plays in his wife’s combo and a big band, Ward served 12 years as managing editor of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway. He also founded the Institute of Politics and Government in Arkansas and served as its chair for several years. A native of Damascus, one of eight children of the Rev. Roy and Mamie Ward, Ward was a few credits short of a music degree from what was Arkansas State Teachers College – now University of Central Arkansas – when he turned to newspaper reporting.
From 1964 through 1971, Ward was director of public relations for Rockefeller’s operations and was campaign manager for his boss’s successful reelection as governor in 1968. Years later, Ward was invited to be campaign manager for the governor’s son, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, in his successful campaign for lieutenant governor.
During that campaign, Ward wrote a second book about the elder Rockefeller, “Winthrop Rockefeller, Philanthropist,” published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2004.
His biography of Winthrop Rockefeller, one of the four brothers who were grandsons of Standard Oil Co. founder John D. Rockefeller, was published in 1978 by Louisiana State University Press. It chronicled the life of the brother who made his own way as an oilfield roughneck and World War II enlisted man – promoted to lieutenant colonel before his discharge.
Ward founded Toad Suck Daze, a spring community-wide celebration in Conway, and served as its first and continuing chair for several years before leaving Conway to join the faculty of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where he taught journalism.
He was a member of the board of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and served as chair for four years. He became director of information services for the University of Arkansas System until 1988 when he was named vice president for public affairs at the University of Central Arkansas.
During his eight years as communications director at UCA, Ward taught journalism and served as president of the UCA Foundation.
He eventually joined the administrative staff of the University of Arkansas System, where he remained until January 2005, when he was named director of marketing and public relations for the Winthrop Rockefeller Center, now Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, on Petit Jean Mountain.
Ward also served many years as chair of the Winthrop Rockefeller Distinguished Lectures Committee and also served for a time as a director of the Oxford American, a literary magazine published at UCA.
His honors include the American Cancer Society’s Special Citation for a series of articles he wrote about laryngectomees, the “Chairman’s Award for Outstanding Service“ from the Institute of Politics and Government, “Man Of the Year 1981” from the Arkansas Press Association, the “Distinguished Service Award” from the Arkansas Press Association in 1982, and the “Distinguished Service Award” from UALR in 1983.
He is a charter member and former president of the of the Arkansas chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, Society of Professional Journalists.
He and his wife, the former Betty Chandler of Little Rock, are the parents of a daughter and son and divide their time between their farm near Bee Branch and their apartment in Conway.