Each year, the Arkansas Times names an Arkansan of the Year (two this year). We solicit nominations from readers, but the staff makes the decision based on impact in the preceding calendar year.
This year, our winners are chosen for leading non-profits with worldwide scope that, in addition to their larger missions, are transforming the core of Little Rock.
“I tell bankers around the state that they owe me a debt of gratitude,” says former U.S. senator and governor David Pryor. “I hired Skip Rutherford away from McIlroy Bank in Fayetteville in 1978. Had he remained a banker, he’d be the biggest banker in the United States. Skip is a doer. He gets things done.”
After Rutherford worked in Pryor’s ’78 Senate campaign, Pryor hired him to run the senator’s Little Rock office. Rutherford left Pryor’s staff in 1984 but Pryor still has reason to reflect on his former employee. As dean of the new Clinton School of Public Service, Pryor sits in his office in the old Choctaw Building and looks across the way at the Clinton Presidential Center, which opened with great celebration in November, and which, some say, will change Little Rock forever.
“I ask myself every day if that building would be here if Skip hadn’t been around,” Pryor says. “He never gave up on it. His optimism drove other people into believing it could happen, and sure enough it did.”
Because he’s been so prominent in connection with the Clinton Center — among other things, his work for the center and the associated revival of downtown Little Rock got him named co-Arkansan of the Year by the Arkansas Times — people tend to associate Rutherford with Clinton primarily. But it’s his first political patron that he more closely resembles. Once, a reporter mentioned to someone who’s had considerable dealings with Rutherford that there seemed to be a dearth of lively anecdotes about the man. “He’s plain vanilla,” the source agreed. “After all, he’s a protege of David Pryor.” (He also once worked for Mack McLarty, a former utility head and Clinton chief of staff. McLarty too was known for accomplishing things in an unexciting way.)
Much of Pryor’s success and popularity came because he seemed to be without ego, a rare politician who spent more time talking about other people — favorably — than about himself. Rutherford is like that. Skip Rutherford is not his favorite topic of conversation, and, as a longtime PR man, he knows how to keep a conversation focused on things he does like to talk about, such as the Clinton library.
James “Skip” Rutherford, 54, is a native of Batesville. He graduated from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville with a journalism degree in 1972. He was editor of The Traveler, the student newspaper at UA, but he has spent his professional career in public relations, a more financially rewarding field than newspapering. But he worked for the Batesville Daily Guard in high school and still subscribes. He says he’s an avid newspaper reader — there aren’t a lot of those left — and the Daily Guard is one of “a bunch” of newspapers that he reads every day.
Rutherford first met Bill Clinton in 1974 at Fayetteville. Rutherford was doing public relations for the bank. Clinton was a 28-year-old law professor thinking about running for Congress.
“I was very impressed when I met him,” Rutherford says. “He was a bright, talented guy, a Rhodes scholar. I thought he had a great future. I probably wasn’t thinking about him as president. Presidents are people you read about in books, not people you know. But I knew he had energy and talent.”
He maintained a friendship with Clinton over the years. Both of them left Fayetteville for Little Rock, Rutherford running Senator Pryor’s local office before going on to PR ventures in the private sector, Clinton serving as attorney general and then as governor. Energetic and public-spirited, Rutherford made a name for himself in civic and political affairs, serving on the Little Rock School Board and, at Clinton’s behest, as chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party. Still, he says he never had a formal role in a Clinton political campaign until the presidential campaign of 1992. After Clinton won, Rutherford could have gone to Washington with him. He chose not to.
Since 1993, Rutherford has been executive vice president of Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods, a large Little Rock advertising agency. In 1997, he became president of the nonprofit Clinton Foundation and local planning co-ordinator of the Clinton Presidential Center. The Foundation raises money for the center. It raised $165 million for construction, making the center the largest non-government construction project in Little Rock history, according to Rutherford. No government money was used in construction, although the government will help pay for operation of the center.
“We wanted a building that was architecturally significant, environmentally sensitive, with high-quality interactive exhibits,” Rutherford says. “None of this comes cheaply.”
“We talked to scholars, authors, journalists and found they wanted nearby hotels, a place that was easy to find and that was close to restaurants and entertainment venues. It’s also nice to have a public library nearby. Graduate students said they wanted medium-price hotels, so we helped the city recruit a Holiday Inn and a Comfort Inn. They wanted shuttle service from the airport, so we got that.
“Downtown Little Rock now has 2,000 new or renovated hotel rooms because of the Clinton Center. There’s been about a billion dollars in development since Bill Clinton announced in 1997 that his library would be in Little Rock. And the Clinton Center was the anchor of that development. We’ve brought Arkansas and Little Rock its first international tourism destination, and helped revitalize downtown Little Rock. The Clinton Center broke the barrier of the interstate the way Alltel Arena broke the barrier of the Arkansas River. The Clinton Center is now the defining element of the city. It is our Arch.”
But the Clinton Center is not the whole story. “Heifer International’s global village will draw more people than we will. Then we’ll have two international tourist attractions. Jo Luck and I meet about once a month to talk about issues, hopes and dreams.” (Jo Luck, the head of Heifer International, is the Arkansas Times’ co-Arkansan of the year with Rutherford.) Lions World services is planning new offices and dormitories in the same neighborhood. CareLink has purchased land in the area. “We’ll have a nonprofit corridor,” Rutherford says.
“If there was a hero in all this, it’s Dean Kumpuris,” Rutherford says, referring to a member of the Little Rock Board of Directors who has been especially active in the development of downtown Little Rock. “He’s a doctor from an old family, financially secure, he could spend time traveling or building up an art collection. But he’s down here nearly every day fighting for the city. Why would a rich doctor care if there’s a River Market? Because he has this great community vision.”
The city won’t suffer when the Kumpurises and Rutherfords step aside, according to Rutherford. “I’m excited about the quality of young leadership here.”
In the meantime, Rutherford still has things to do. He continues as president of the Clinton Foundation, and the Foundation has some large projects planned that it hopes to complete this year — a pedestrian bridge across the Arkansas River, and a Clinton Park. The Foundation also will continue to raise money for operation of the center, though not on the scale that was needed for construction.
And Rutherford will continue to be an unpaid, one-day-a-week college instructor, something he’s done for years at his alma mater in Fayetteville and other Arkansas institutions of higher learning. He missed the fall semester, because of the demands of the Clinton Center opening, but he’s teaching this spring at the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville. The course is called “Communicating, Rainmaking and Networking.” Those are the kind of things that textbooks don’t do justice to.