"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, businessman
Mack McLarty was born and raised in Hope, Ark., where he attended kindergarten with a future U.S. president, Bill Clinton. McLarty went on to a successful business career and served as Clinton’s first White House chief of staff.
Now he advises corporate leaders and heads of state in a partnership with Henry Kissinger, but he never fully left Hope, where he still owns his childhood home.
“I just have a debt of gratitude and warm feeling about Hope that I have trouble expressing in words,” he says.
McLarty’s roots in Hempstead County go back five generations. His mother was from Prescott and his father grew up in Hope. McLarty’s grandfather opened the first car dealership in the small town, and it still exists today.
“It was a Norman Rockwell time in the ’50s when I was growing up in Hope,” remembers McLarty, who turned 60 this year. “If you did something wrong, your mother knew about it before you got home. You talk about responsibility and opportunity and sense of community — Hope certainly had those virtues.”
Among the things McLarty says he learned as a child in Hope were honesty and “treating people in a respectful manner.”
“Those characteristics and qualities served me well in dealing with heads of state, corporate executives and other people I have had the privilege to work with in the last 25 years,” McLarty says.
That observation leads him to point out that “a lot of our presidents have been products of smaller towns,” like Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. And that leads to a story from his early days in the White House.
“We had just made our first trip to Moscow to have a summit meeting with President Yeltsin and his cabinet,” McLarty recalls. “We had just sat down at the Kremlin, and the president passed me a note. It said, ‘8 a.m., Moscow. Mack, a long way from Hope. Thanks, Bill.’ ”
McLarty says, “I had a pretty idyllic childhood. My mother and father were very engaged and supportive. In small towns during that period, everyone worked hard, but the pace was different. We generally had meals together. There was real social cohesion from a school standpoint.
“I think stability and certainty in life were important factors. You had a sense of security, not only security in your home life, but generally people had a much higher level of security in their jobs. It all translated into more nurturing and less anxiety than we probably experience now.”
Still, McLarty says, “Hope wasn’t a perfect place.”
“During my time of growing up, we did have segregation,” he says. “And in a small town, not unlike other small towns, there was knowing too much of other people’s business. Small-town gossip … can also get more on the less-than-positive side than it should.
“But it had a lot of redeeming characteristics,” he adds. “Even with segregation, there was a real respect for the worth and dignity of the individual. I was taught that not only in word but in deed, and that made a real impression on me. … Frankly, you had a sense that people were pulling for you. When you did something that was positive, people reinforced that, and it made a real difference.”
He remembers doctors making house calls, and his teachers being “formative and supportive.” One of them taught him to make to-do lists, a habit that persists to this day.
Sports were a big part of life in Hope, and McLarty was quarterback of the Hope High School football team that went 11-1 his senior year. Even though McLarty would eventually end up in politics, returning to Hope after college to win a seat in the state legislature, his priorities at the time are clear when he recalls his first encounter with future U.S. senator and Arkansas governor David Pryor.
“David was about 20, and I was about 10,” McLarty says. “He was driving then-candidate Francis Cherry around the state, and they came to Hope and met with my father at our home at 1500 South Main. I remember I was more interested in playing football with a Camden Panther quarterback than meeting a future governor. Little did I know I was meeting two future governors.”
McLarty says he still tries to get back to his home in Hope often.
“We still have our family home in Hope,” McLarty says from his office in Washington, D.C. “I was just there right before Thanksgiving. I try to spend the holidays there and gather the family. It renews the spirit, and I walk down memory lane.”
— Warwick Sabin