Collections Blog

Collections Blog

“Arkansas’s Hat Lady”: The Story of Willie Oates

Old State House Museum - Thursday, June 30, 2016

In honor of Willie Oates Day earlier this month, June’s blog showcases her many hats, both literally and figuratively.

Will Etta Long (Willie) Oates was born on January 14, 1918, in Arkansas City, Kansas, to Harry L. Long and Roberta Fern Jordan Long. Willie graduated from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in 1941 with a bachelor’s degree in foreign languages. That same year, Willie married Dr. Gordon Oates and they went on to have two children.

Following the conclusion of World War II, Willie began her volunteerism and philanthropic career. Over the course of her life, Willie was involved in over fifty organizations, some of which included the Arkansas AIDS Foundation, the Kidney Foundation, the Pulaski County Chapter of the American Cancer Society, Arkansas Federation of Women’s Club, the Salvation Army, the Lion World Services for the Blind, and the Little Rock Founders Lions Club. Willie was the first female member of the Founders Club as well as its first female president, and she was the first woman to serve as chair of the Salvation Army’s Advisory Board. In 1959, Willie was elected to the Arkansas General Assembly. While serving she introduced a bill which became the first state law dealing with motorcycle safety, as well as introducing a bill that would have allowed the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools.

Because of her extensive involvement in and fundraising efforts for charities that served residents throughout Arkansas, she received numerous awards, including the Clara Barton Award, the highest service award given for volunteer service by the American Red Cross, and the William Booth Gold plaque, the highest award given for lifetime achievement from the Salvation Army. Governor Jim Guy Tucker proclaimed June 1, 1996 as Willie Oates Day in her honor. In a similar fashion, Arkansas Gazette political cartoonist George Fisher honored Willie in his 1990 “Hats off to Willie” cartoon depicting Willie with her multiple hats, representing both her sense of fashion and her heart for community service.

Willie’s civic activism and service created a benchmark of caring and devotion for all to live by. She passed away on March 4, 2008, and was interred next to her husband. After Willie’s death, her daughter donated 20 of her hats to the Old State House Museum, which now find their home in the museum’s collection.