‘Dean of the Capitol press corp’ honored with endowed scholarship

Lana Bethune, daughter of George Douthit, helps present a ceremonial check to UALR, KUAR and Arkansas Public Media staff.

In the mid-1980s, the current and former living governors of Arkansas gathered to honor George Douthit, the “dean of the Capitol press corp.”

The distinguished guest list included Sid McMath, Orval Faubus, Win Paul Rockefeller, son of the late Winthrop Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Frank White, and Bill Clinton.

About 800 people attended. Had he been alive, though, Douthit probably would not have been among them.

In fact, Douthit would have been “horrified” that all those people gathered on his account, said his daughter Lana Bethune.

It’s not that Douthit wasn’t in favor of raising money to help future journalists — mentoring inexperienced reporters was one of his passions. Douthit just thought journalists should remain behind the scenes.

“He was very professional,” Bethune said. “He would not accept a cup of coffee. He was really just there to write a story.”

Douthit’s former colleagues honored that legacy of professionalism when they established the George C. Douthit Scholarship Trust for journalism students attending Arkansas colleges and universities in the 1980s. They made Bethune, Douthit’s only child, a trustee, and held other fundraisers through the years.

Recently, the remaining funds of that trust — more than $75,000 — were donated to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to create the George C. Douthit Endowed Scholarship.

The scholarship will support UALR College of Social Sciences and Communication student participation in an internship or graduate fellowship with any news outlet in central Arkansas, said Christian O’Neal, UALR vice chancellor for advancement.

“This is just terrific,” O’Neal said. “Central Arkansas is the best place in Arkansas for future journalists to receive hands-on experience at state-level news organizations that will help them be job-ready when they graduate. This endowed scholarship will enable UALR to educate journalists who will be the news leaders of tomorrow.”

One of the outlets where future journalists might work is the newly launched Arkansas Public Media — a statewide multi-platform news collaboration that includes KUAR at UALR.

The funds will support hands-on applied teaching and learning that is already a feature of the College of Social Sciences and Communication, said Lisa Bond-Maupin, founding dean of the college.

Helping students get experience with a news organization such as Arkansas Public Media, which is connected to NPR and PBS, is an especially exciting aspect of the donation, Bond-Maupin said.

“It involves new voices in public radio and promotes dedication to writing about issues of concern to Arkansans,” Bond-Maupin said. “We are proud to partner with the donors to honor Mr. Douthit’s service to the state and his incredible career in this way.”

George Douthit’s developing journalism career

Douthit got his start in journalism as a teenager, covering sports for the San Antonio Express. He later moved to the Texarkana Gazette as a sports editor, worked for the Associated Press in Fort Smith and Hot Springs, and then joined the Arkansas Democrat.

Artist caricature of George Douthit
Artist caricature of George Douthit

During World War II, he served in Europe under General Patton in the Army.

Following the war, he became convinced that photography — previously featured infrequently by newspapers — was as important as reporting with words and could greatly enhance storytelling.

Douthit decided to teach himself how to take photographs.

“He used me as a Guinea pig,” his daughter said, recalling that her father created family Christmas cards as he experimented.

Douthit had an eye for beauty and was observant — qualities that served him well as a photographer and reporter, Bethune said.

During the later part of his 40-year career, Douthit started his own news service, the State News Bureau, providing issue-based coverage of the Arkansas Legislature to small weekly publications throughout the state that otherwise wouldn’t have regular contact with their lawmakers.

Family and politics

Bethune was 9 years old when Douthit married her mother. She really admired the man she calls both Dad and George. She said the two of them probably worked harder on their relationship than they would have had they been related by blood.

Douthit smoked cigars, usually while sporting long-sleeved shirts and ties. Bethune recalls thinking her dad wore his pants too high.

“His pants always seemed to be above the waist,” she said.

Douthit had a knack for being in the thick of where the news was happening.

“It was an interesting ride for me growing up, and I learned a lot about politics,” Bethune said. “Not much happened that he didn’t know about.”

Thanks to Douthit’s passion for photography, Bethune also had the opportunity to meet stars such as Gene Autry, Dick Powell, and June Allyson, as well as President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“He always got a story, and he always got the picture,” Bethune said.

Tough questions

Douthit was soft-hearted with Bethune and other family members, but he was notorious for being a tough interviewer.

“Everyone knew him,” she said, “and many feared him because he always had the most difficult questions.”

Making politicians ill at ease was a point of pride for Douthit: He saw probing questions as an important part of the job.

Douthit also was known for giving reporters new to the Capitol beat a hard time — but then he took them under his wing.

As someone who skipped college and started in the journalism business at the age of 16, Douthit could relate to the inexperienced but determined.

“I think that’s why he was so interested in helping people who came into the business,” said Bethune, who met her husband, Ed, a former U.S. representative from the 2nd District, while attending Little Rock Junior College, which later became UALR.

Douthit often exhorted young reporters to “get the facts and get them straight.”

“To him, that was the whole ballgame,” Bethune said.

Douthit was so respected that after he died in 1985, his colleagues and the people he used to make squirm during interviews held a memorial for him on the Capitol steps.

His photograph still hangs in the Capitol press room.

Bethune remembers and admires the well-known journalist, but she also fondly recalls the kind-hearted man who became her adopted father.

“I loved him very much.”

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