John Heiskell was a man who saw much change in his lifetime and created change himself. He worked for the Arkansas Gazette for 70 years, and used his position as a public advocate. He was briefly – very briefly – a U. S. Senator. He was fascinated by history and hired a historian for his paper, one of the few that had such a position. As a writer, he looked to secure a future for Arkansas.
John Netherland Heiskell was born in Rogersville, in northeastern Tennessee, in 1872 and raised in Memphis. His father, Carrick Heiskell, was a Confederate officer and attorney with one other son. His grandfather, John Netherland, was an outspoken Unionist as well as a former Tennessee legislator. His other grandfather, Fredrick Heiskell, was also a former Tennessee legislator and one-time mayor of Knoxville who had also founded the Knoxville Register.
He was a shy and studious young man. He graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1893. From there, he worked as a reporter in Knoxville and Memphis.
As the family long had an interest in newspapers, the Heiskells bought out the Arkansas Gazette in 1902. John Heiskell became editor, while his brother Fred became managing editor. As editor, he refrained from personal attacks and focused on issues. He became very outspoken on a number of civic issues and used the paper to get results. In 1907, his editorials pushed for the creation of a public library in Little Rock. The library was established, and Heiskell was given the first library card. He would serve on the library board of directors for the next 65 years.
Heiskell also became a footnote in Arkansas political history. When Sen. Jeff Davis died on Jan. 3, 1913, it touched off a bizarre series of political maneuvers. Gov. George Washington Donaghey appointed Heiskell on Jan. 6 until a replacement could be selected by the state legislature. At that time, Senators were still appointed by state legislators. This would not change until the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified later in 1913. Ironically, Heiskell had been an outspoken critic of Davis’s policies.
Heiskell’s tenure in the Senate was largely uneventful. Congress took little action as the administration of President William H. Taft ended and the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson approached on March 4.
On Jan. 29, Heiskell was then replaced by William Marmaduke Kavanaugh, whom legislators selected to fill the remainder of Davis’s term. Kavanaugh, a Kentucky native as well as former Pulaski County Sheriff and judge, was also a former editor of the Arkansas Gazette.
Heiskell thus served as a United States Senator for 23 days, the shortest of any Arkansan in the Senate. However, Heiskell’s term in the Senate was not the shortest ever. In 1922, Rebecca Latimer Felton was appointed United States Senator for Georgia to fill an unexpired term. She thus became the first woman to serve in the Senate, though the 86-year-old served for only one day.
Kavanaugh, however, would not be in office much longer than Heiskell. He was sworn into office on Jan. 29 and would serve for only 33 days as a new election was held in the Arkansas legislature for a full term. Legislators chose Gov. Joseph T. Robinson for the Senate and assumed his seat on March 10. And Robinson had only served as governor for 51 days.
After his brief service in the Senate – the only political office he would ever hold -- Heiskell resumed his work at the Gazette. Heiskell continued to speak out on a number of issues in the editorial page. He supported Prohibition and women’s suffrage. Though he supported segregation initially, Heiskell denounced lynching and anti-Semitism. However, his stance on civil rights issues changed when he hired a new generation of young reporters and editors in the 1950s and the civil rights movement began to accelerate. Even as an older man, he still showed a capacity for growth and a willingness to change his mind.
In 1957, the paper became famous nationally for its coverage of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. Though the Gazette faced competition from the Arkansas Democrat and could possibly face serious repercussions for speaking out against the mobs surrounding the high school, Heiskell trusted his team to make the right decisions. The paper’s own editorials defended desegregation, and editor Harry Ashmore won a Pulitzer Prize for its editorials and the paper itself won a special Pulitzer Prize for public service.
Well into his nineties, he still oversaw the smallest details of the newspaper and insisted that a copy be brought to his home each night as soon as it was printed. He continued to come to the office regularly until nearly to his one hundredth birthday. He was only one of three Untied States Senators to reach the age of 100, the other two being Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Cornelius Cole of California. He died quietly at his Little Rock home in 1972.