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Sunday, August 3, 2014

The open line: Plus an obituary footnote on John Norman Harkey

Posted By on Sun, Aug 3, 2014 at 4:53 PM

The Sunday line is open. A memorial note:

The Democrat-Gazette today carried a perfunctory obituary notice on John Norman Harkey, 81, a retired Batesville lawyer and judge.

His colorful history deserves a further mention. Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller appointed Harkey, a Democrat, Arkansas insurance commissioner in 1967. His job was to clean up the sewer of corruption created by the Faubus administration. Arkansas had more insurance companies than New York with 30 times the population, books on the Rockefeller era recount. In a year, he set up a meaningful regulatory agency and forced dozens of the operators out of Arkansas.

He was a founding member of the Arkansas chapter of the ACLU and had a role in public interest litigation, particularly related to municipal bond financing for private projects. (UPDATE: He very nearly upended a Little Rock convention center bond issue in this challenge.)  It was back in the pre-Internet era and I can't readily dig up the details. I'm counting on Ernie Dumas' memory to bail me out.

The D-G paid obituary didn't include this note in the longer obituary posted by the funeral home:

Throughout his life, he had a deep and abiding interest in helping others and was a mentor to many people, whether loved ones or complete strangers. He was a fan of the H.L. Mencken quote: “If after I depart this vale, you have pause to think of me and wish to please my spirit, forgive some sinner and wink at some homely girl.” 

UPDATE: Ernie Dumas chips in a recollection of Harkey:

Harkey would have preferred that his death go unnoticed by the newspapers. He never cared for publicity, perhaps after the episode when he tossed policemen through the plate-glass window of a Hot Springs nightclub after they came to arrest him for excessive drinking and carousing. He was prosecuting attorney for Independence County at the time. He must have learned to cherish brawling when he fought with the Marines in Korea.

As Rockefeller's insurance commissioner he shut down hundreds of fly-by-night insurance companies in 1967-69 and helped shutter Arkansas Loan and Thrift Corp., the bogus savings bank that Faubus cronies and the Arkansas attorney general, Bruce Bennett, used to fleece west Arkansas people out of millions in the late sixties. He was later a juvenile judge.

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