Tom Watson (1920–1988)
Tom Watson was a longtime member of the Arkansas Senate. In just under two decades of service, he earned a reputation as a hardworking legislator who was particularly interested in advancing the cause of education.
Thomas Watson was born on August 30, 1920, in Monette (Craighead County) to John Tilden Watson and Claud Brooks Watson. Little is known about his family or his early years. On December 24, 1943, he married Gladys Gilbert. The couple had one son. Watson developed a large, successful farming operation in a partnership with his brother and his son.
Watson spent ten years as president of the Monette School Board and was also deeply involved in Craighead County governance. He served for six years as chairman of the County Division of the State Soil Conservation Service and five as chairman of the County Agriculture and Stabilization Committee. In addition, he served on the County Welfare Board and was also the secretary-treasurer of the Craighead Farm Bureau.
With this background in service as well as a thriving farm operation, Watson sought election to the Arkansas Senate as a Democrat. Watson’s early career was marked by electoral challenges. In his initial candidacy in 1970, he won a three-way primary with just under forty percent of the vote only to find himself forced to run against a colleague in 1972, when redistricting put them in the same district. However, after he achieved a narrow three-vote primary victory over fellow incumbent Burrell Thompson, his status was secure, and he would consistently and easily win reelection until he died in office in 1988.
Early in his first term, he backed the effort by new governor Dale Bumpers to introduce an income tax in Arkansas, but when it failed he supported an increase in the sales tax in an effort to raise much needed revenue. Three years later, he again stood up when an effort was made to expel popular Senator Guy “Mutt” Jones Sr. who had been convicted of multiple counts of income tax evasion. When the Senate held a direct, public vote—the first public one for an expulsion motion since the 1930s—Watson, who believed deeply in the importance of integrity in public officials, voted to oust Jones, but the effort fell short.
Watson was interested in a range of issues and sought to address fundamental needs of the state and its citizens. A member of the Education Committee, he was a strong supporter of proposals to close the gap in teacher salaries. Meanwhile, as a member of the Joint Auditing Committee, he was very aware of the fiscal realities, and he introduced legislation to raise the fees for fishing and hunting licenses.
At the time of his death, he was seventh in seniority in the thirty-five-member body, and with all the more senior members having already held the office, Watson had already been elected to serve as president pro tempore of the Senate for the 1989 session.
Diagnosed with cancer, Watson was in and out of the hospital over the last year of his life. He died on May 26, 1988, and is buried in the Monette Memorial Cemetery in Monette. The voters elected his wife, Gladys Watson, to serve out the remainder of his term. In a Senate resolution following his death, Watson was said to be “not only a statesman but was a caring legislator who identified with his constituents and always had the best interests of the people of this State in his mind.” Governor Bill Clinton, called him “a kind and gentle man” and an “effective legislator for his district.” He also offered praise for his efforts as a “staunch advocate for education, economic development and local governments.”
For additional information:
Lancaster, Bill “Scoop.” Inside the Arkansas Legislature. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2015.
“Obituary.” Arkansas Gazette, May 27, 1988, p. 18A.
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated: 03/30/2021