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She came down from the Hills, Too: Celia Alta Haskins Faubus (First Lady, 1955-1967)

Old State House Museum - Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Orval Faubus wrote a two volume autobiography in the 1980s entitled Down From the Hills, in which the second volume was called Down From the Hills, Two. But from the day that he met Alta Haskins at a teachers’ institute in Fayetteville, their trajectory would truly take them down from those hills, and on to the national and world stage.

The daughter of a Baptist preacher who owned an 80-acre farm at Ball Creek in Madison County, which was five miles from the Faubus farm at Greasy Creek, Alta’s first date with Orval was to a spelling bee at a neighbor’s house with the transportation being Orval’s horse, Queen. Orval and Alta were married in 1931 at the church where her father preached, Ball Creek Community Church near Combs, and they taught in many of the one-room schools in the mountains for several years. After seven years and the birth of their son, Farrell, Alta followed Orval into the political life, and life in Huntsville, when he was elected Madison County Circuit Clerk in 1938. In 1942, Orval went off to war, and she managed the office’s affairs for the remainder of his term.

After spending time with Orval at several Army bases, she and Farrell returned to Huntsville while he served overseas. When he returned, they entered into a new life endeavor in the newspaper business, purchasing the Madison County Record while Alta was also appointed Madison County Postmaster, a position Orval once held. When he was appointed to serve in the administration of Sid McMath, Alta would run both the paper and the Post Office, and would become respected for her business acumen. To this day, the Record is still owned and operated by the Faubus family. Over the years, Alta developed several business interests, including commercial property and a motel.

As Arkansas’s longest serving First Lady, she lived through an eventful twelve years that her husband was at the helm and not only dominated the Arkansas stage, but for a time, the world stage as well. Yet in the midst of a decade of change and sometimes-upheaval, Alta still made her mark on her position and on her legacy. She was well known at that time for the Christmas parties that were held at the mansion for the children of the Governor’s Mansion neighborhood and for the staff. During these popular events, a friend of Alta’s trucked in a team of reindeer from Texas, would harness them to a sleigh with a “red-nosed” Rudolph in front, and led by Santa with generous quantities of candy and fruit. She was also an active volunteer with the Arkansas Training School for Girls, where the recreation building would later be named “Alta Faubus Hall” in recognition of her purchase of a piano for the home. She was active as an advisory member of the Board of Mental Health (a top policy priority of her husband’s), where she was instrumental in the development of community health centers; and was honorary chair for the state Highway Beautification Program and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. She had the honor of being appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as head of the new Head Start program in Arkansas, and under her leadership, the program became the top performer in the nation, earning Alta recognition at a White House ceremony hosted by the President. Alta also came into her own as a campaigner, even taking Orval’s place due to illness in making his nomination acceptance speech at the 1964 state Democratic Convention. After her husband stepped down in 1967, numerous groups attempted to persuade her to run for Governor herself.

After leaving the Governor’s Mansion, Alta concentrated of the family businesses and traveled widely, having met such luminaries as Prince Charles, Princess Diana, and Jehan Sadat, widow of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat. Her granddaughters provided her with much joy and pride, and as Anne McMath observed in her book on Arkansas’s First Ladies, they were the joy of Alta’s life, providing for much of their education, and remaining close to them through her later years.

She indeed came “down from the hills,” strode the state’s stage, saw and experienced the world, and earned the eternal love and admiration of a state whose people by and large saw her as a dear friend. That sentiment was one that Alta Faubus reciprocated for a lifetime.