At the age of 62, former State Senator Jean Edwards of Sherrill was sworn-in as a member of the Arkansas State Senate representing what was then District 8, which included parts of Jefferson, Desha, Lincoln, Arkansas and Lonoke counties, continuing a life of service that he began when he enlisted in the Air Force at age 22.
Edwards, whose resume also included time spent as a member of the Jefferson County Quorum Court, as an educator, a farmer and a member of countless boards and commissions, died Nov.23 at his home in Sherrill. He was 88.
“He loved the Lord and he loved his family,” said former Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services firefighter LaRon Edwards, who was a grandson and is currently a firefighter in Northwest Arkansas. “He was a trailblazer for both his family and the community, and we can't count the number of calls we've had from people telling us how he changed their lives.”
Jean Edwards was born May 18, 1929, to James Wesley Edwards, a farmer, and Laura Bridgett Freeman Edwards. He was the fourth of a family that eventually grew to 14 children. A book on Senator Edwards that was written by Bill Lancaster, who was the first chief of staff of the state Senate, said that Edwards attended school in Sherrill through junior high, the highest level of education available to black children in that area, and his father bought land in Pine Bluff, which allowed his children to attend Merrill High School.
“Back in those days, I was the only black boy in Sherrill that had a high school diploma,” Edwards was quoted as saying. “I didn't see the value of education at that time. We were farming, and I thought we were doing pretty good. Of course we were poor, but I didn't know it.”
Edwards went on to attend Arkansas AM&N College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), where he received a Bachelor of Science Degree.
“I was the first one in my family to finish college but if I had it to do over again, I would have started the higher education process earlier because it would have given me more productive years,” Edwards was quoted as saying.
After serving in the Air Force, he met his wife Artemeze, and the couple had four children. Ten grandchildren and, later, 10 great-grandchildren came along.
One of Edwards' daughters, Rhonda O'Guinn, said he also tried to take care of UAPB while he was in the state Senate, sponsoring bills that included appropriating $2 million for the construction of a football stadium. He would also appropriate funds for operating expenses of the Aquaculture and Water Management programs and appropriate funds for operating expenses of community and economic development.
He was also a longtime supporter and attendee of the Rural Life Conference at UAPB and was one of two attendees for which the 44th conference was dedicated. Honorees are chosen for their support of UAPB's School of Aquaculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences; rural community development — for improving the life of people in the community; and for positive contributions to the conference.
He caught the political bug, in part because his brother-in-law, Henry Wilkins III was serving in the Arkansas House of Representatives and ran for a seat on the Quorum Court.
In his first race, he had two opponents and won by 34 votes. He was unopposed after that and served five terms before running for Senate District 8 and winning. He was sworn in in 1991 and later in that session, made history when his sister, who had been elected to serve out the term of the late Henry Wilkins III was sworn in. It was the first time in history that a brother and sister were serving in the house and senate at the same time.
Edwards received the endorsement of The Commercial in that first race with the editors saying the following in November 1990.
“Come election day, the clearest choice on the ballot for voters in state Senate District 27 should be Jean Edwards, who scarcely needs introduction in this part of the state. In many ways, Jean Edwards is this part of the state, or at least what we would like to think are the best qualities of the Delta: courtesy, kindness, diligence, patience, a sense of place, a sense of family, and a sense of community. Such things speak louder than any election promises. Jean Edwards's best endorsement is his own lifetime of conscientious public service and community involvement.”
“Even after he left the Senate he would bring the staff pecans, vegetables and the like because that was the type of man that he was,” O'Guinn said. “He fought against inequities and felt like it was his job to help others.”
That included working on the Minority Health Commission which received funding for the first time in 1993 thanks to Edwards' support.
“My cousin and I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time traveling with him during his legislative career,” LaRoy Edwards said. “He could not only talk the talk, he could walk the walk. He didn't just tell you something, he showed you.”
He spent 10 years in the State Senate before leaving and going back to what he had done all his life, farming.
“He moved to Sherrill and started farming when he was five and he finally retired from farming when he was 82,” O'Guinn said. “He loved the farm and he loved the Lord but he developed Parkinson's and needed more rest.”
Survivors include his wife of 62 years, Artemeze Redwood Edwards; two sons – Edwin Jay Edwards, Sr. (Ruth) of Bentonville, Arkansas and Jauch Edwards (Cheryl) of Fort Worth, Texas; two daughters – Marico Early (Harold) of Fayetteville, Arkansas and Rhonda O'Guinn (Alvin) of Pine Bluff; ten grandchildren – Edwin Jay Edwards, Jr. (Karen) of Alpharetta, Georgia; Crandall Edwards (Marjorie) and LaRon Edwards of Lowell, Arkansas; Jimere Edwards of Pea Ridge, Arkansas; Turquoise Early of Fayetteville, Arkansas; J. Wesley Edwards II and Jemyah Edwards of Fort Worth, Texas; and S. Jerome McCollum and A. Jordan O'Guinn of Pine Bluff; ten great-grandchildren; five brothers - Jasper Edwards of Sherrill, Arkansas; Theodis Edwards (Bobbie), Larry Edwards, Leon Edwards and David Edwards (Sue) of White Hall, Arkansas; five sisters – Joyce Grant of Arlington, Texas; Josetta Wilkins, Janice McDonald, Juanita (Joe) Miller and Joanna Edwards of Pine Bluff, Arkansas; and a host of nieces and nephews.
O'Guinn said one of the most important things about her father was his love for her mother and their children and in his final message, he expressed that.
“I have lived my life to the fullest,” he said. “I've been blessed beyond measure. I've had the favor of God … he gave me a very good and long life with a dedicated Christian woman whom I loved very much! I was fully aware that she loved me also? Now nothing else matters.”