She Made the Pryor Commitment: Barbara Jean Lunsford Pryor (First Lady, 1975-1979)

Old State House Museum - Friday, November 09, 2018

Barbara Pryor, 1975, photo from Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Born on December 26, 1938, in Fayetteville, Barbara Jean Lunsford was the only daughter, and late Christmas gift, to Bruce and RosaLee Lunsford. In her freshman year at the University of Arkansas she met an upperclassman from Camden named David Pryor, who was heavily involved in student government and in a number of other leadership roles at the University. A whirlwind courtship led to their marriage a year later, and they moved to David’s hometown of Camden after he graduated.

For the next 18 years, life was constant movement for Barbara, who had married into one of South Arkansas’s most politically prominent and active families: David’s father, Edgar, was a Chevrolet dealer who served as Ouachita County Sheriff (and ironically, helped support a young Senate candidate named John McClellan, who would defeat his son in 1972), and his mother, Susie, was the first woman to run for elective office in Arkansas after women gained the right to vote in 1920. The epicenter of the Pryor family’s being was a huge contrast to the largely apolitical Barbara, who admitted that “politics was not my chosen vocation.” That movement included publishing a newspaper, David’s graduation from law school and establishment of a law practice, election to the state House of Representatives and to Congress, an unsuccessful Senate race, and arrival at the Governor’s Mansion, and growing a family of three boys along the way.

And while doing the traditional things that were expected of a First Lady, Barbara developed her own interests and identity as well.Taking courses in the Arts and Sciences Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, she soon became involved in the making of a movie being filmed in Texarkana. She ended up raising $1 million dollars from 12 investors and became the executive producer of a movie entitled, "Wishbone Cutter,” which was filmed entirely on the Arkansas River.

At the Governor’s Mansion, Barbara closely supervised redecorating efforts, served on the board of Goodwill Industries, worked for the benefit of the Arkansas Repertory Theater, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the Arkansas Arts Center, and Volunteers in Little Rock Public Schools. She also was one of the original members of the Committee of One Hundred, which was formed for the support of the Ozark Folk Center, which was brought into the state parks system under her husband’s administration.

After four years in the executive mansion and eighteen years in Washington while David served in the U.S. Senate, the Pryors passed on offers of jobs in lucrative DC law firms to return home to Arkansas. In 2013, the Pryors received the Pat and Willard Walker Tribute Award at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute Gala for Life, in recognition of their work on behalf of the institute. Their son, Mark, would hold David’s old senate seat for two terms. But one of the couple’s proudest achievements in retirement was the establishment in 1999 of the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas, with a mission to “document the cultural heritage of Arkansans by collecting audio and video resources to share with scholars, students, and the public.” This was an extension of the couple’s longstanding interest in historic preservation, and by extension, Barbara’s interest and experience in film.

By any measure, all Arkansans are enriched by Barbara having made that “Pryor Commitment.” We’re certain that David would heartily agree.