When Pine Bluff native and former 4th District Congressman Jay Woodson Dickey Jr. was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992, he made history by being the first-ever Republican to hold the office. Dickey died Thursday night at Jefferson Regional Medical Center after a battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 77.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson released a statement Friday morning about Dickey, saying, “Jay was one of those people who loved life and everyone around him. I had the privilege of serving with Jay in Congress and I have never seen anyone who was so determined to fight for the people of his district. He made friends easily and he stuck with them.”
The governor said he played basketball with Dickey in the gym at the U.S. House of Representatives, and “like everywhere else in his life, he was a competitor. He will be missed.”
Reactions poured in Friday from around Pine Bluff, Jefferson County, the state and nation about the man many considered a good friend and colleague. Jefferson County Justice of the Peace Ted Harden said he was first elected to the Jefferson County Quorum Court in 1992 when Dickey was elected to Congress. Like Harden, Dickey was a Republican in a county where there were very few members of that party who were readily identified.
“We had been friends for a long time, and he was a client of mine when I was in the banking business. But Republicans were a real rarity at that time, more so in Jefferson County,” Harden said. “His death is a big loss… .”
A graduate of Pine Bluff High School, Dickey attended Hendrix College at Conway before receiving a bachelor's and law degree from the University of Arkansas. He worked as an attorney in private practice and for two years was the Pine Bluff City Attorney.
“I first met him through the Jaycees,” Pine Bluff Alderman Bill Brumett said. “I think he was the president of the Jaycees at that time, and they were responsible for building the golf course at Oakland (now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) Park. They had Arnold Palmer come in and play a round when it opened.”
Dickey was elected to Congress four times, beginning in 1992 when he defeated then Arkansas Secretary of State Bill McCuen, collecting 52 percent of the vote for the state's 4th district. Two years later, he defeated another Pine Bluff native, Jay Bradford, who later became insurance commissioner under former Governor Mike Beebe, also garnering 52 percent of the vote. In 1996, Dickey received 64 percent of the vote against Democrat Vincent Tolliver, and he got 58 percent of the vote in 1998 when he beat former State Representative Judy Smith.
Dickey's congressional career ended when he was defeated by former Congressman Mike Ross during the 2000 General Election; a bid to regain his job from Ross two years later also proved unsuccessful. Ross said he first met Dickey 25 years ago, little knowing then that they would later be opponents in two elections.
“Following those elections, we became fast friends and remained so until his passing,” Ross said. “I'll always remember Jay for his steadfast commitment to the people of Arkansas and this country. We often talked about the issues of the day, but we also talked about our faith. He was a born-again Christian and was very public about it. He was a good man who served our state and nation faithfully. He will be missed.”
Two provisions in federal law are named for Dickey: The Dickey Amendment, which prohibits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding research on gun injuries, and the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services from funding research that involves the destruction of a human embryo or the creation of a human embryo for research purposes. In recent years, Dickey said he regretted sponsoring the provision banning research on gun injuries.
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., also a former 4th District congressman, said of Dickey: “Jay became a good friend and a trusted source of counsel during my first campaign for his old congressional district. He was a good man and a man of deep faith. Jay was one of a kind and we're richer as individuals and as a state for having had him in our lives.”
Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV said Friday that his family has a personal connection to Dickey.
“In the early to the late 90's, we worked on several projects together,” former state legislator and current Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV said. “I was a Democrat and he was a Republican, but that never stopped us from working together.”
Those projects involved with included improving the highway from Little Rock to Pine Bluff, the Interstate 530 bypass and work on Interstate 69, which Wilkins said began under former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater during the administration of former President Bill Clinton. Wilkins said his son, Henry “Hank” Wilkins V, served a summer internship in Dickey's office after the two met at Jack Robey Junior High, where Dickey was speaking.
“I think my son introduced him, and afterward, Congressman Dickey said, 'you're a promising young man. How would you like to be an intern,'” Wilkins IV said. “My son said 'those internships are usually for college students,' and Dickey said 'would you be interested in being the first ninth-grader?' My son got an opportunity to get some exposure he never would have had had it not been for Congressman Dickey.”
Former Pine Bluff Mayor and Jefferson County Judge Dutch King described Dickey's death as “a great loss for Pine Bluff. He worked extremely hard in Congress for us. He was also a very unique individual.”
Joe Dempsey, a freelance photographer for the Commercial, was a neighbor of Dickey's, as well as a friend.
“He lived around the corner and was really active in the community,” Dempsey said. “Although he worked in Washington, he came home on weekends, and if you missed seeing him one weekend, the chances were that you would see him the next because he was always at some event or the other.”
Dempsey said Dickey had two dogs that he would walk in the area near the Pine Bluff Country Club on a regular basis.
“He would tell those dogs to sit, and their their butts would hit the tarmac and sit there,” Dempsey said. “Those were well trained dogs.”
U.S. Senator John Boozman R-Ark. also released a statement, saying, “Congressman Jay Dickey was a devoted public servant who dedicated himself to the people of Arkansas. He loved his state and was an unapologetic statesman who worked for its betterment. Jay was very helpful and kind to me in many ways when I became a congressman. My thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time. Jay left a legacy of faith and example that they can be proud of.”
Rep. Bruce Westerman, who currently represents the 4 District of Arkansas, also a Republican, said about Dickey's death:
“Jay Dickey was a trailblazer in Arkansas politics, becoming the first Republican elected to represent the Fourth Congressional District. During his four terms in Congress, Jay advocated for the people of Arkansas as a member of the Appropriations Committee and stood for small town values during his time in Washington.
“Jay was more than a congressman. He was a dedicated public servant for decades before running for the Fourth District seat, holding the position of Pine Bluff city attorney but above all, he was devoted to his family and was a man of faith.
“I mourn Jay's passing and will keep his family in my thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.”
Republic Second District Congressman French Hill, said, “It is a sad day for our state; Congressman Dickey was a great public servant who made many contributions to Arkansas and the Nation as a whole. I always loved his irrepressible enthusiasm for lower Arkansas and no one worked harder for his constituents that Jay. We are all fortunate to have had someone with such a strong character to be a leader in our state.”
Funeral arrangements for Dickey will be announced by Ralph Robinson & Son Funeral Directors in Pine Bluff.