‘A public office is a public trust,” President Grover Cleveland once declared. Though it is often the opposite that usually gains attention, many men and women have served in various offices with dignity, integrity, and competence. Arkansas has had several such figures. One such figure was Kaneaster Hodges, Jr., a U. S. Senator for Arkansas for just 13 months in the late 1970s.
Hodges was born in Newport in August 1938, the second of six children. His father was a respected local attorney. His father encouraged public service and faith. The younger Hodges would eventually become an Eagle Scout; but instead of a law career, he was drawn to a career in ministry instead.
He graduated from Princeton University in 1960. After marrying his high school sweetheart Ruth Williams, he enrolled at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. After his ordination, he and his wife were sent to a series of Methodist churches in Massachusetts in 1963. In 1964, he took a position as a chaplain at the notorious Rikers Island prison in New York City. After a short time, Hodges decided to go to law school. He returned to Arkansas and enrolled at the University of Arkansas Law School and graduated in 1967. He returned to Newport and joined his father and brother at their law firm.
Hodges bought his own farm while working as an attorney and also served as a deputy prosecutor for Jackson County. In 1974, he was appointed to the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. In 1975, he was named legislative secretary for Gov. David Pryor, helping steer his ambitious agenda. In 1976, he was named to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. In November 1977, longtime U. S. Senator John L. McClellan died. Pryor, under his powers as governor, appointed Hodges to fill the remainder of McClellan’s term.
This thrust Hodges unexpectedly to national prominence. Under Arkansas law, no one appointed to fill the remainder of a term of an elected office can run for a full term in the next election. Hodges knew this would only be for a short time, but he made the most of it.
His term, which started on Dec. 10, would last only a little more than a year. However, in that time, several important laws were advanced with Hodges’s support. The Inspector General Act created the office of inspector general for several large agencies to investigate corruption and malfeasance and became an important effort at reigning in corruption at lower levels of government in the wake of the Watergate scandal earlier in the decade. The Ethics in Government Act required disclosure of finances and employment history for federal employees, and the Civil Service Reform Act created the Office of Personnel Management to help oversee hiring and personnel issues.
He also supported the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the first federal legislation to protect the employment rights of pregnant women. Legislation supporting research into solar power was passed as well as legislation supporting energy conservation and even bankruptcy reform. Legislation was also passed with Hodges’s support putting Susan B. Anthony on the silver dollar starting in 1979, the first woman to be depicted on an American coin.
Some controversial legislation was also passed during 1978. Airlines were deregulated, lifting federal controls on pricing and airline routes. The Panama Canal Treaty was ratified after years of negotiation between the U. S. and Panama, which returned control of the canal territory to Panama by 1999. Though the treaty had been negotiated through both Republican and Democratic administrations and ratified with bipartisan support, the return of the canal territory prompted sharp criticisms.
Pryor was elected to the seat in November 1978 and would serve until 1997. After Hodges’s short time in the Senate ended on Jan. 3, 1979, he quietly returned to Newport. Only 40 years old when he left the Senate, Hodges still had a lot of work to do. He continued to work as a lawyer and farmer and also worked to raise money for charitable causes across the state. A reading room was named at the University of Arkansas in honor of his fundraising work for the university. He continued to be a familiar face in church pulpits across the region in the ensuing decades, happy to step in when a guest preacher was needed to fill in. Hodges died in Little Rock in March at the age of 83, widely mourned across Northeast Arkansas.