Jim Caldwell

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James Ray "Jim" Caldwell
Jim Caldwell

Arkansas State Senator for District 9 (then Benton and Carroll counties)
In office
January 1, 1969 – December 31, 1978
Preceded by Russell Elrod
Succeeded by Kim Hendren

Chairman of the
Arkansas Republican Party
In office
March 1973 – December 1974
Preceded by Charles T. Bernard
Succeeded by Lynn Lowe

Born October 29, 1936
Dardanelle, Yell County
Arkansas, USA
Died November 12, 2017
(aged 81)
Tulsa, Oklahoma

Death cause:
Parkinson's disease

Resting place Bentonville (Arkansas) Cemetery
Spouse(s) Thelma LaFerne Muller Caldwell
Children Four daughters:

Vicki Jones
Sherri Garner
Patti Reese
Kelli Keltner
Thirteen grandchildren

Residence Tulsa, Oklahoma
Alma mater Central High School (Tulsa)

Harding University
Southern Methodist University
University of Tulsa

Occupation Minister; after-dinner speaker
Religion Church of Christ

James Ray Caldwell, known as Jim R. Caldwell (October 29, 1936 – November 12, 2017), was a Church of Christ minister in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was a Republican member of the Arkansas State Senate from 1969 to 1978, the first member of his party to sit in the legislative upper chamber in the 20th century. His first two years as a senator corresponded with the second two-year term of Winthrop Rockefeller, the first Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction. Caldwell acted as a point man for Rockefeller in the state Senate.


Caldwell was born in Dardanelle in Yell County in west central Arkansas to Reece E. Caldwell (1912-1971) and the former Oval Ermice Greene (1914-2000). He attended the first eleven years of school there but finished his senior year at Central High School in Tulsa. In 1958, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts in general studies from the Church of Christ-affiliated Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas. He received a Master of Science from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and pursued doctoral studies at the private University of Tulsa but did not complete the terminal degree. He was called to the ministry in 1956 . As a state senator, he was the minister at the Southside Church of Christ in Rogers in Benton County in northwestern Arkansas. By happenstance, he began after-dinner speaking before various church and civic groups. For eight years before his return to Arkansas from Oklahoma, Caldwell served on stand-by in the Oklahoma Air National Guard. He and his wife, the former Laferne Muller, have four daughters.[1]

Arkansas legislative politics

A Democrat-turned-Republican, Caldwell was first elected to the Senate from Benton and Carroll counties in 1968, when he unseated the Democratic incumbent Russell Elrod (1904-1985) of Siloam Springs. In 1972 and 1974, Caldwell topped two other Democrats, Bill Nelson of Rogers and Rex Bolin, an insurance agent from Bentonville, to secure a two-year and a four-year term, respectively.[2]

In the 1969 legislative session, Caldwell followed Rockefeller's lead in supporting the legalization of the sale of mixed drinks when approved through local-option elections. As a minister, Caldwell lectured against the use of liquor, but as a legislator he deemed the issue best settled locally.[3]

Ernest Dumas, formerly of the defunct Arkansas Gazette, recalls that Caldwell in 1969 and 1970 led the attempt to enact the “good government” tax increases sought by Rockefeller, but he could convince few Democratic colleagues to join him, an exception having been Morrell Gathright, a lawyer from Pine Bluff in Jefferson County.[4] Budget director William Goodman described Caldwell as “trustworthy, one whom the other legislators could depend upon.” Two Democrats, Max Howell, a lawyer from Jacksonville, Arkansas, and Knox Nelson, an oilman from Pine Bluff, controlled the Senate in the era before the implementation of term limits. Goodman recalls Rockefeller having spent much of his time dealing with Howell and Nelson, rather than the few Republican legislators then in office.[5][6]

State Republican chairman

From 1973 to 1974, Caldwell was also the Arkansas GOP chairman during a particularly bleak period for the party.[7] In March 1973, a month after Rockefeller's death, Caldwell was elected as chairman to succeed Charles T. Bernard of Earle in Crittenden County in eastern Arkansas. In this role, he opposed fielding “sacrificial lambs”[8] as placeholders on the ballot and expressed doubt that the GOP could win the governorship again for at least six years.[9] Jack Bass and Walter DeVries write that in 1974 the state GOP was dependent on the possible emergence of a new political personality in the post-Rockefeller era. Bass/DeVries speculated that the GOP could be revived: “Continued urbanization and economic growth should enable the Republicans to remain viable as an alternative if the Democrats drift from moderation.”[10]

A defender of U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, Caldwell questioned whether the Watergate disclosures would have much impact on the Arkansas party because of the lack of GOP opportunities then available. Caldwell called upon Republicans to continue to recruit African American voters and Independents, something Rockefeller had pursued with considerable short-term success.[11] Caldwell claimed that many in his party did not “think in practical terms. We’re busy debating issues that don’t elect anybody.” He described the GOP as in “a serious adjustment period” since Rockefeller's death.[12] In 1974, the GOP had organizations in just seventeen of the seventy-five counties. The party supported its staff by sporadic fundraising activities, which netted $143,000 in 1973. The Republicans lost their best issue with the demise of the “Old Guard”, epitomized by former Governor Orval E. Faubus and his declining number of backers. Caldwell said that he believed that the GOP, despite its minority status, had made it still “possible for the right candidate to win under the right circumstances.”[13]

In December 1974, Caldwell stepped down as state chairman and was succeeded by Alymer Lynn Lowe, a farmer in Miller County near Texarkana, who had run in 1966 for the United States House of Representatives against David Pryor and was in 1978 the Republican gubernatorial nominee against Bill Clinton. Lowe was considered conservative and was a lifelong party member.[14] In 1975, Lowe speculated that Vice President Nelson Rockefeller had retained support within the Arkansas GOP because of “the feelings for his brother,”[15] but Rockefeller soon removed himself for consideration by President Ford to a full term in the second office.

Like legislative colleagues Danny L. Patrick of Madison County and Jim Sheets of Benton County and the GOP functionary Len Blaylock of Perry County, Caldwell recalls having become personally friendly with Orval Faubus, whom he met in 1970 during the unsuccessful Rockefeller reelection campaign. According to Caldwell, the former governor asked him in the early 1990s to preach Faubus' funeral. However, upon Faubus’ death on December 14, 1994, Caldwell deferred to sitting Governor Jim Guy Tucker, who asked to deliver the main address as Faubus’ body lay in state at the Arkansas capitol.[15]

Later years

Caldwell did not seek reelection in 1978 and was succeeded by the Democrat, later Republican convert, Kim Hendren of Gravette in Benton County.[16] At some point thereafter, Caldwell, like legislative colleague George E. Nowotny, Jr., of Fort Smith, relocated to Oklahoma, and their paths never crossed while both were residing in Tulsa. Each lost contact with former colleagues in Arkansas.[17] Stricken with Parkinson's disease, Caldwell in 2010 was writing an autobiography of his ministry and political career entitled Behind Closed Doors.[1]

In 2003, Caldwell was honored at a dinner by then Governor Mike Huckabee for Caldwell's role in sponsoring legislation during the 1970s to expand the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at Little Rock.[1] Journalist Douglas Smith, formerly of the Arkansas Gazette, described Caldwell as “liberally-minded. I thought highly of him."[18]

Rockefeller had few members of his own party to guide his programs through the legislature. Eleven Rockefeller vetoes were overridden, far more than for other Arkansas governors.[19] He was at the beckoning of Democrats, who ultimately determined the fate of his programs. One of those Democrats, House Speaker Sterling Cockrill, provided assistance to Rockefeller and in 1970 even joined the Republican Party and ran for lieutenant governor when Maurice L. "Footsie" Britt decided against seeking a third term.[20]

The Arkansas GOP found it difficult to function without Rockefeller's financial asupport. As time passed, one might conclude that the state GOP had made only minimal progress in its political mission though some of the “good government” programs that it had championed were adopted under Rockefeller and in subsequent administrations beginning with his immediate successor, Dale Bumpers. In time, the GOP moved beyond Rockefeller's legacy to reflect the pattern of Republican growth in most other southern states, more conservative and less moderate than Rockefeller and Caldwell had championed in Arkansas.[21][22]

Caldwell died in Tulsa at the age of eighty-one after a long fight with Parkinson's disease. His services were held at the Crosstown Church of Christ in Tulsa. He is interred at Bentonville Cemetery in Benton County, Arkansas. In addition to his widow, the former Thelma LaFerne Muller (1937-2020), Caldwell was survived by four daughters and their husbands, Vicki Jones (Gary) of Tulsa, Sherri Garner (Reece) of Seligman, Missouri, Patti Reese (Jack) of Tulsa, and Kelli Keltner (Robert) of Aubrey, Texas.[23][24]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Statement of James Ray Caldwell, Tulsa, Oklahoma, April 2010.
  2. State of Arkansas, Membership list, Arkansas State Senate.
  3. Cathy K. Urwin, Agenda for Reform: Winthrop Rockefeller as Governor of Arkansas, 1967-71 (Fayetteville, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press, 1991), p. 122.
  4. Statement of Ernest Clifton Dumas, Little Rock, Arkansas, December 9, 2011
  5. Statement of William Goodman, December 2011
  6. William Max Howell (1915-1999) was the longest serving legislator in Arkansas history, with tenurein both the House and Senate. Knox Nelson (1926-1996), partly a victim of redistricting, lost his Senate seat in the early 1990s to Jay Turner Bradford, an insurance agent from Pine Bluff.
  7. Arkansas Outlook (state Republican newsletter), November–December 1968; Springdale News, July 1, 1973; Arkansas Outlook, May 1973. Caldwell was correct in his prediction that his party would not regain the governorship until 1980.
  8. In 1976, the GOP offered as its gubernatorial nominee, the "sacrificial lamb" Leon Griffith, a politically unknown master plumber then from Pine Bluff, who was crushed in the general election by Governor David Pryor.
  9. Arkansas Outlook, May 1973
  10. Jack Bass and Walter DeVries, The Transformation of Southern Politics: Social Change and Political Consequence Since 1945 (New York: Basic Books, 1976), p. 105.
  11. Arkansas Outlook, May 1973; Caldwell was correct in his prediction that his party would not regain the governorship until 1980.
  12. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, October 26, 1974, p. 2960
  13. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, October 26, 1974, p. 2960.
  14. Statement of Alymer Lynn Lowe, Texarkana, Arkansas, December–January 2009-2010.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Arkansas Outlook, October 1975.
  16. Kim Hendren (born 1938) is a brother-in-law of former U.S. Senator Tim Hutchinson and former U.S. Representative Asa Hutchinson. Hendren himself lost a bid in 2010 for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate.
  17. Statement of James R. Caldwell, Tulsa, Oklahoma, April 2010; Statement of George E. Nowotny, Jr. of Tulsa, June 2009.
  18. Statement of Douglas Smith, Little Rock, Arkansas, December 12, 2011.
  19. Diane Divers Blair (1938-2000) and Jay L. Barth (born 1939), Arkansas Government and Politics, 2nd ed. (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), p. 71.
  20. “The Conscience of an Arkansan,” Pamphlet from the 1970 campaign of Sterling Cockrill for Lieutenant Governor.
  21. Blair and Barth, Arkansas Politics and Government, pp. 71-72
  22. Ernest Clifton Dumas, "WR, the progressive". arktimes.com. Retrieved on June 3, 2012.
  23. Obituary for LaFerne Caldwell. Arkansas on-line (January 8, 2020). Retrieved on December 19, 2020.
  24. James Ray "Jim" Caldwell. Findagrave.com. Retrieved on December 19, 2020.