Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Vada Webb Sheid and the Transformation of North Central Arkansas

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Vada Webb Sheid and the Transformation of North Central Arkansas

Article excerpt

on SaAturdaAy morning, MmaAy 4, 1968, Baxter County sheriffEmmett Edmonds was serving prisoners breakfast when he was suddenly attacked by one of the inmates, Edwin Odus Pittman. In the ensuing struggle, Edmonds was shot twice, the fatal wound to his chest. Pittman managed to escape but was captured three days later in the town of Cotter after one of the most intensive manhunts in Baxter County history. At a special court session held on May 16, Pittman entered a plea of guilty. The jury's duty was clear-cut, to determine the appropriate punishment-either life imprisonment or execution. Testimony was brief with only two witnesses called, the coroner and the sheriff's widow. In her testimony, Pauline Edmonds recommended mercy, preferring that Pittman's life be spared. The jury, swayed by the wishes of the widow, met for only a few minutes before handing down a life sentence.1

Soon afterward, Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller appointed Pauline Edmonds to complete her husband's term as sheriff. Rockefeller, though a Republican, had consulted Vada Webb Sheid, the area's Democratic representative in the state legislature, for advice concerning the appointment of an interim sheriff. Fully aware that Mrs. Edmonds had no income and was hard-pressed to support her family, Sheid recommended her for the post. Since this was only a temporary position, Sheid arranged for a midnight interview with the imprisoned Pittman in which he confessed that he received the murder weapon baked in a cake from his girlfriend in Indiana. The gun having crossed state lines made the murder a federal crime, thereby securing Pauline Edmonds a federal pension.2 This episode, revealed Sheid's strength as a legislator-constituent service. Frequently working behind the scenes, Sheid's work benefited many citizens, but her best efforts rarely made headlines.

Sheid spent her political career serving the remote hill country of the Ozarks. During her lifetime, dramatic changes took place in North Central Arkansas, turning an isolated and poverty stricken area with few paved roads, few homes with electricity or running water, and few job opportunities into an area blessed with all the modern conveniences. Gradually, as roads, bridges, and an infrastructure were built, the area began to attract migrants from outside the area. These developments both shaped and were shaped by Vada Webb Sheid's legislative service. Her story, then, is intertwined with the history of the area, while also illustrating the complexities faced by female politicians of her era.3

The only child of John and Gertrude Webb, Vada was born on August 19, 1916, in Wideman, Arkansas, a small crossroads just outside Calico Rock in Izard County.4 From these humble beginnings, she went on to become the first woman elected to both the Arkansas House and Senate. The two qualities that came to define Vada were her persistence and her desire to help others. The greatest influence in her life was her father, John "Bill" Webb. A cattle buyer who never held an elective office, Bill Webb had a keen interest in politics. A lifelong Democrat, he attended political rallies and campaigned on behalf of politicians whom he believed would best serve the community. Vada often accompanied her father on these trips around the county and gained from him a love of politics, considering it life's "highest calling."5

Sheid practiced a personal brand of a small-town politics lacking in extreme partisanship. Politics, a dirty word to many, to Sheid amounted to community service-"just helping people."6 Sheid surely enjoyed the prestige and sense of accomplishment associated with being one of a few women elected to the General Assembly. The excitement of being on the inside of the political process, in contact with powerful politicians such as David Pryor, Bill Clinton, and John McClellan, must have been especially satisfying for someone from the backwoods of the Ozarks. But because she grew up during the Great Depression, Sheid's main motivation was to use the power of government to improve the lives of the people in her district, many of whom lived what might politely be called a "hardscrabble" existence. …

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