From Small Town Girl to the Leader’s Lady: Ewilda Gertrude Miller Robinson (First Lady, 1913)

Old State House Museum - Wednesday, December 19, 2018

She was the local beauty who made heads turn in Lonoke. He was the rising trial attorney with political ambitions. Together, Ewilda Gertrude Miller and Joseph Taylor Robinson would blaze a trail from Lonoke County to the state capitol, the nation’s capital, and on to the national and world stages, with proximity to the White House and the possibility of the Supreme Court.

Ewilda Miller was four years Robinson’s junior and the daughter of a general store owner who was wounded at the Battles of Shiloh and Atlanta during the Civil War. As one of Lonoke’s leading families, the Millers were prominent in the town’s social affairs, hosting numerous events in their home, and leading meetings of the “Four Leaf Clover Club,” It was quite the contrast to the young boy who caught her eye: young “Joe T,” the son of a country doctor, chopped cotton and tended to his father’s apple orchard while growing up on the family farm.

They first met in 1896 on a on a picnic at Hill’s Lake, near McAlmont in Pulaski County, which became a favorite spot for them as well as many other couples in the area. Within a year, they had gone from meeting at the corner drug store; dating, ending their evenings on the Miller family’s back porch, engagement, and marriage. Their December 15, 1896, wedding at Lonoke’s First Methodist Church was an auspicious occasion that became the community’s social event of the year, according to the Lonoke Citizen, who described the union of the rising “lawyer, statesman, and orator” to one of “Lonoke’s fairest and most accomplished daughters.”

For the next 41 years, Ewilda was her husband’s chief confidant and supporter, and embarked with him on a life that would lead them to the pinnacle of national prestige, first to a decade in the House of Representatives, then to an extraordinary series of events by which Joe would be within three weeks a congressman, governor and elected to the United States Senate. Holding the Governor’s chair for 54 days, largely to get his promised program through the General Assembly, Ewilda had little opportunity to make her mark on the role; there was not even any mention made of her in the Little Rock newspapers on Inauguration Day, January 16, 1913. When her husband arrived in the Senate, he rose quickly in the Democratic Party hierarchy, becoming Senate Democratic Leader in 1923. In that role, Joe and Willie would be considered the “jet setters” of their time, making official visits to lands as diverse as Turkey, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, France, Denmark and the United Kingdom. Vacations included grouse hunting in Scotland and Czechoslovakia, as well as trips to Panama, Alaska and Hawaii. When Franklin Roosevelt was elected President, they would represent FDR in events such as the inauguration of Philippine President Manuel Quezon, for four months as the President’s representative to the London Naval Conference, and numerous times as guests of King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace. They were beyond a doubt, the most traveled and prominent Arkansans of their day, and represented Arkansas and her people with great honor and respect.

After a brief campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1924, Ewilda Robinson, as her husband’s closest confidant and adviser, experienced the pride of seeing her husband named permanent chairman of the 1928 Democratic Convention, where Joe was nominated for Vice President as the running mate of New York Governor Al Smith, the first Arkansan to win nomination by a major party at either end of the ticket. After the exciting but unsuccessful race, the Robinsons would become key Roosevelt supporters, and as Majority Leader, Joe and Ewilda had the honor of hosting the president at their Little Rock home during Arkansas’s centennial celebrations in 1936. After the Senator’s sudden death in 1937, Ewilda was left a widow with no income, as Senators did not receive pensions at that time. Out of loyalty to her husband’s memory as well as from the urging of friends, President Roosevelt appointed her as Postmistress of Little Rock, a position she would hold for 21 years until her death in 1958.

The small town couple was said to have liked each other instantly. That admiration never diminished throughout the years of public life, and that admiration was returned by the people of their state.