James Lee Sheets, known as Jim Sheets (born March 29, 1931), is a retired businessman from Bella Vista, Arkansas, who is a Republican former member of the Arkansas House of Representatives. From 1967 to 1968, Sheets represented Benton County for a single term.
He is the first member of his party in the 20th century to have been sent to the legislature from Benton County, located in the far northwestern portion of the state. In time, Benton County became the GOP’s banner county in Arkansas. Sheets did not seek reelection because of the time required away from his employment as public relations director of his alma mater, the Christian-affiliated John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
Sheets was born in Arkansas City in Cowley County in southeastern Kansas, to June P. Sheets (1903-1982), originally from Fargo in Ellis County in northwestern Oklahoma, and the former Mae Robinson (1904-2002), a native of Pierce City in Lawrence County in southwestern Missouri. June Sheets was employed in Arkansas City as an agent for the former Frisco Railroad, but he was transferred as a dispatcher in 1943 to Enid in northern Oklahoma. Therefore, Jim Sheets graduated in 1949 from Enid High School.
After having received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible and English in 1953, Sheets immediately joined the John Brown University staff as manager of the campus radio station. While attending JBU, he had met his future wife, the former Martha Hamlin, a native of Disney in Mayes County in northeastern Oklahoma. The couple married in 1954 and adopted four children.
From 1955 to 1958, Sheets served in the United States Army, partly under a secret Atomic Energy Commission clearance at the Oakland Naval Supply Station in Oakland, California. After his military duties, Sheets hence returned to JBU in 1958 as director of public relations and student recruitment, a position that he maintained until 1969.
In 1953, Sheets joined Kiwanis International; in 1965, he served a year as governor of the Missouri-Arkansas District during the golden anniversary of the organization. After he made a Kiwanis presentation to Democratic Governor Orval E. Faubus, Sheets encountered Faubus thereafter on several occasions while Faubus was peddling his scrapbook memoirs, Down from the Hills. “I had no problems with Faubus. He was amicable. Many of the things he did were what the people of Arkansas then wanted," Sheets recalls.
Relationship with Rockefeller
Sheets met Winthrop Rockefeller (1912-1973) for the first time when both were seeking office in 1966, he for the state House and Rockefeller as the first of the post-Faubus era governors and the first Republican in the position since Reconstruction. Sheets recalls having excellent personal relations with Rockefeller though, like colleague George E. Nowotny, Jr., of Fort Smith, he disagreed with Rockefeller on certain issues. In the 1967 legislative session, Sheets introduced a revised death penalty bill, but Rockefeller opposed capital punishment, a position at odds with most Arkansans in both parties. According to Sheets, Rockefeller told him that their disagreement on the death penalty would not affect their personal and political association. Sheets said that he was contacted at the time by J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who presented "talking points," a term not yet coined, that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder because it causes some miscreants to think twice about the taking of life if they know that their own existence would be jeopardized.
Unlike Nowotny, who considered Rockefeller’s drinking to have been serious in his later years, Sheets said that it appeared to him that Rockefeller could handle liquor in most situations. In 1973, Sheets was among the mourners at Winthrop Rockefeller’s funeral on Petit Jean Mountain, where he met Nelson Rockefeller, headed the following year to a short tenure as Vice President of the United States.
Challenging Kelly Bryant
Upon leaving John Brown University in 1969, Sheets became the full-time executive director of the Siloam Springs Chamber of Commerce but the next year he was back in politics as the Republican nominee against the Democratic Secretary of State, Kelly Bryant of Hope in Hempstead County in south Arkansas. Hope is also the hometown of later Governors Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee. In that 1970 campaign, Sheets was invited to ride on Rockefeller’s helicopter. He won majorities in his own Benton County and the usually Republican Searcy County. By a single vote, Sheets lost in Washington County, where many of the local Democrats were also political reformers. Official results showed Bryant with 360,209 (62.3 percent) to Sheets’ 216,752 (37.7 percent).
Sheets recalls that the last pre-election poll that he had seen showed the race competitive, but the situation changed quickly when U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright lent Bryant the use of his political team. Sheets said that he had never expected to win the race though he finished in the balloting some twenty thousand votes ahead of Rockefeller.
In his challenge to Kelly Bryant, considered part of the "Old Guard", Sheets said that part of his motive in running against Bryant was to procure regional name identification for a possible 1972 congressional race. Earlier, U.S. Representative John Paul Hammerschmidt, the Harrison Republican and Medal of Honor winner first elected in 1966, along with Rockefeller and Maurice L. "Footsie" Britt, had informed Sheets that he believed, incorrectly as it turned out, that U.S. Senator John L. McClellan would retire in 1972. Had that scenario developed, Hammerschmidt, known in particular for his prompt and effective constituent service, planned to run for the U.S. Senate and would have endorsed Sheets as his preferred House successor.
Managing the Ford campaign
By the mid-1970s, Sheets had left the chamber of commerce position and was engaged in real estate in Siloam Springs. He was an alternate delegate to the 1976 Republican National Convention that met in Kansas City, Missouri, to nominate the ticket of Gerald Ford, and Robert Dole, narrowly preferred by the delegates over the rival slate of Ronald Reagan and Richard S. Schweiker, then a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. Dole took the second spot with Ford as Nelson Rockefeller had earlier withdrawn from contention. Sheets was the Arkansas state campaign for Ford-Dole, with his counterpart for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale having been Bill Clinton, who ran unopposed that year for the office of Arkansas attorney general. Although Sheets visited most of the counties in the campaign, Ford polled only 35 percent of the vote in Arkansas, with the Republican strength confined to its traditional stronghold, the northwest quadrant of the state.
In 1982, Sheets left Siloam Springs to become executive director of the Kiwanis International Foundation, based in Indianapolis, a position that he retained until he retired in 1998. In this role, he traveled to nearly fifty countries, including Australia and New Zealand, to establish Kiwanis clubs. He spurred the raising of $100 million to finance, in conjunction with the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, a campaign to eradicate iodine deficiency in the Third World.
- Benton County, Arkansas, is not traditionally Republican; prior to 1950, the GOP for decades had controlled at the local level neighboring Searcy and Newton counties in northwestern Arkansas. Newton County, however, voted in 1964 for Orval Faubus over Winthrop Rockefeller.
- Statement of James Lee Sheets, Bella Vista, Arkansas, June 2009, based on interview with Billy Hathorn, the author of the article.
- The Sheets children are Kimberly Norton (born 1958) of Laurinburg, the seat of Scotland County in southern North Carolina; Mark R. Sheets (born 1961) of Rogers in Benton County, Arkansas; Kevin James Sheets (born 1981) of Bella Vista, and Aaron Sheets (born 1983) of Fayetteville, Arkansas.
- Arkansas Secretary of State, Election results for November 5, 1970
- Arkansas election returns, November 5, 1970
- Kelly Bryant died in 1975 early in his seventh two-year term as secretary of state and is interred at Memory Gardens Cemetery south of Hope.
- John Little McClellan (1896-1977) was elected to a final term which he did not complete. After he narrowly defeated U.S. Representative David Hampton Pryor for the 1972 Democratic senatorial nomination, McClellan then easily turned aside Republican Wayne Babbitt, a North Little Rock veterinarian, even though the Nixon-Agnew ticket was easily carrying Arkansas that year.
- Jack Bass and Walter DeVries, The Transformation of Southern Politics, p. 104
- Arkansas election returns, November 4, 1976
- Sheets attends the Valley Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Bella Vista, where his wife has been the church pianist.