Richard Bernard Atkinson (1946–2005)

Richard B. Atkinson was the tenth dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville (Washington County). While serving as an administrator, he continued to teach classes as a member of the law school faculty, consistently being ranked by peers and students as one of the most popular and highly rated professors. In addition, Atkinson was a longtime member of the board of directors of Washington Regional Medical Center and was a founding board member of the Northwest Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute (NARTI), as well as being an active patron of the arts.

Richard Bernard Atkinson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 3, 1946, to Richard Jasper Atkinson, who had a career in the tractor sales business, and Mary Louise Hess Atkinson, a high school substitute teacher and primary school reading instructor. The family resided in Elkin, North Carolina, where Atkinson grew up. He was an honor graduate of Elkin High School.

He received a BA from Duke University in 1966, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He went on to receive a master’s degree in divinity from Yale University in 1971 and earned a Juris Doctorate from Yale in 1974.

Admitted to the bar in Georgia, he became an associate with the large law firm of King and Spalding in Atlanta. He also served as a visiting professor at Emory University, Georgia State University, and the University of North Carolina.

Atkinson was recruited to join the faculty at the University of Arkansas by his law school classmate at Yale, Bill Clinton. Atkinson relocated to Fayetteville, joining the UA law school faculty in 1975. His main research and teaching areas included matters of property, real estate transactions, and wills and trusts.

Atkinson served as interim dean of the law school for the 1990–91 academic year. His permanent deanship began in 2003. Under his leadership, the University of Arkansas School of Law was included among the 2006 listing of the most diverse law schools in the country by U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of “America’s Best Graduate Schools.” In the same publication, the school ranked in the top dozen in the specialized category of legal writing.

In 2004, another magazine, the National Jurist, ranked the UA School of Law in the top twenty nationally for its success in improving ethnic and gender diversity for the previous decade, a time when it was under Atkinson’s leadership.

Since the inception of the hooding ceremony at the law school commencement in the early 1990s, Atkinson was almost always one of two faculty members selected by the graduating class to perform the honor.

Among many other duties, Atkinson chaired the Faculty Appointments Committee and was in demand nationally as a lecturer on bar review. In addition, he was appointed to several state committees, including serving as chair of the Workers’ Compensation Reform Commission. Even with his administrative duties as law school dean plus other commitments, he continued to teach, stating that he found it too much fun to give up entirely.

On August 4, 2005, at age fifty-eight, Richard Atkinson suddenly died in Chicago, Illinois, while attending the American Bar Association annual meeting. He was survived by his partner Dr. Michael Hollomon, retired director of psychiatric services at Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville.

Among the many tributes following Atkinson’s sudden death, former president Bill Clinton said, “He quenched his desire to serve in so very many ways. As a teacher, a dean, a poet, a citizen of his community and state, and a friend to all of us, and countless others.”

In 2020, a $500,000 planned gift from Michael Hollomon and Eric Wailes in Atkinson’s memory was dedicated to establishing a Law and Sexuality Fund at the University of Arkansas School of Law. The donors stated that the fund is intended to ensure that the legacy of Richard Atkinson continues to impact future generations.

For additional information:
“Atkinson Remembered through Newly Established Law and Sexuality Fund.” University of Arkansas News, May 5, 2020. https://news.uark.edu/articles/52913/atkinson-remembered-through-newly-established-law-and-sexuality-fund (accessed August 19, 2021).

Noland, Ali. “The Legacy of Dean Richard Atkinson.” Arkansas Times, May 6, 2020. https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2020/05/06/the-legacy-of-dean-richard-atkinson (accessed August 19, 2021).

“Richard B. Atkinson.” Legacy.com. https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/myrtlebeachonline/obituary.aspx?n=richard-b-atkinson&pid=14743218 (accessed August 19, 2021).

“Richard B. Atkinson LGBTQ Law & Policy Program.” School of Law, University of Arkansas. https://law.uark.edu/academics/atkinson-program/index.php#:~:text=The%20Richard%20B.,gender%20identity
%20law%20and%20policy
(accessed August 19, 2021).

“UA Community Mourns Death of Law School Dean.” University of Arkansas News, August 4, 2005. https://news.uark.edu/articles/11916/ua-community-mourns-death-of-law-school-dean#:~:text=FAYETTEVILLE%20%2D%2D%20The%20University%20of,Bar%20
Association%20meeting%20in%20Chicago%20
(accessed August 19, 2021).

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society

Last Updated: 08/19/2021

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