Archibald Rex Hancock Jr. (1923–1986)
Archibald Rex Hancock Jr. was a dentist who lived in Stuttgart (Arkansas County) and whose passion for outdoor life and the environment led him to become one of Arkansas’s most ardent supporters of conservation measures. He became known primarily for his fight to preserve the natural character of the wetlands along the Cache River in eastern Arkansas.
Rex Hancock was born on July 6, 1923, in Laddonia, Missouri, the youngest of three children of Archibald Rex Hancock Sr., a dentist, and Alma Bothman Klein. He graduated from Laddonia High School in 1941. He interrupted studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, to serve as pharmacist’s mate in the U.S. Seventh Fleet Amphibious Division during World War II. After the war, he returned to Westminster and earned a BA in 1947. He then earned a DDS degree from the University of Missouri School of Dentistry in Kansas City.
His fervent interest in hunting led him to come to Arkansas, where he first settled at Huntsville (Madison County). In 1951, he moved to Stuttgart due to the abundance of water fowl there.
As a successful dentist, Hancock was active in professional organizations and served as Southeastern District Dental Society president, but much of his interest and energy went into activities in the fields of wildlife management and conservation. Realizing that Arkansas was not mentioned in the Boone and Crockett Club’s historic Records of North American Big Game (first published in 1932), he set about locating trophy game heads in the state. As a result, Arkansas rose from total absence to being listed as number one.
Hancock’s greatest notoriety came from his fight to save the Cache River from being dredged and channelized to prevent the flooding of surrounding lands. The river meanders from north Arkansas southeast to the White River. Environmentalists argued that channelizing the river would destroy one of the state’s irreplaceable assets by robbing the area of winter feeding grounds for an estimated one million mallard ducks, other migratory birds, and native animals. While agricultural interests wanted to clear the area for planting and development, conservationists argued that clearing the area would lower the water table, kill hardwood trees, and pollute the Cache River and its tributaries, with only large landowners reaping any benefits from the land.
The U.S. Congress approved funds in 1950 for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin dredging operations. The cause became an issue in the national Congress and in the courts and spread to a number of other states along the Mississippi Flyway. Hancock led a group of dedicated hunters and environmentalists in the organization of a Citizen’s Committee to Save the Cache. They marshaled forces of conservation groups over the nation, and, with what acquaintances called “bulldog persistence,” brought enough force to bear that, in 1972, a federal court halted the dredging work that had been started by requiring further environmental impact studies. Later, the creation of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge put an end to all plans for dredging the river.
Hancock was also largely instrumental in bringing to light pollution of land and streams in the Bayou Meto area near Jacksonville (Pulaski County). The toxicity of the area in what was known as the Vertac site, where pesticides were produced, was finally acknowledged and cleaned up more than thirty years after Hancock began documenting the presence of dioxin—a toxin known to cause cancer and birth defects—in the area.
Hancock was active in multiple wildlife organizations. He served five terms as president of the Grand Prairie Chapter of the Wildlife Federation; as president of Arkansas Wildlife Federation, which named him Conservationist of the Year in 1968; and as regional director of the National Wildlife Federation from 1975 to 1979. The Arkansas Bowhunters Association gave him the Wandering Bow Hunter Award in 1968. Outdoor Life magazine named him Conservationist of the Year in 1973. He was named Arkansas Sportsman of the Year in 1975. His alma mater bestowed on him the Westminster College Alumni Achievement Award in 1976. The Baton Rouge Sportsman’s League presented him the Crawdad Award for his efforts to preserve the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana. In 1981, the Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area in Woodruff County was renamed in his honor.
In 1963, Hancock married Jan Hagaman, his dental assistant. The couple had three daughters and two sons, all of whom survived him at the time of his death on July 8, 1986. His ashes were buried at the Rex Hancock/Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area.
Shortly after his death, the federal government earmarked $33.1 million from federal duck stamp money for the establishment of a Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. In 1993, he was inducted posthumously into the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Foundation’s Outdoor Hall of Fame.
For additional information:
“Dr. Hancock Dies This Morning.” Stuttgart Daily Leader. July 8, 1986, p. 1.
“Dr. Rex Hancock, Activist, Dies at Age 63.” Arkansas Gazette. July 9, 1986, p. 1.
Williams, Nancy A., ed. Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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