Gay Daniels White (1947–)
Gay Daniels White was the wife of Frank White (who was the forty-first governor of Arkansas) and the state’s thirty-sixth first lady. Outside of politics, she has been best known for her love of Arkansas’s outdoors—hiking, camping, and canoeing—leading her to serve on the board of trustees of the Arkansas Nature Conservancy for a number of years. She has also publicly shared her experience of personal struggle and the role of faith in her life.
Gay Daniels was born in Oakland, California, on March 7, 1947, to Russell and Nan Daniels. She was the youngest of three daughters born into a career U.S. Navy family. After her father retired from naval service, the family settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she completed high school and enrolled at the University of Tulsa. She also attended Marshall University and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She was briefly married after her freshman year at the University of Tulsa, and she and her husband moved to California, where they both worked in various capacities with Campus Crusade for Christ. After their divorce in 1969, she lived in a former Kappa Sigma fraternity house on the UCLA campus that had been converted into a dormitory. The businessman who had acquired the building hired her as a secretary, and she cooked in the evenings for the students who lived in the building. She described the residents as Christian students, adding that many “had come from terrible backgrounds and had been involved in the drug scene.”
She moved to Arkansas in 1971, having grown to love the state in her visits to her sister’s home. Her sister lived in Little Rock (Pulaski County), and her brother-in-law was a lobbyist working on David Pryor’s challenge to Senator John McClellan’s bid for a sixth term. She would travel throughout 1972 with her brother-in-law, setting up rallies and raising campaign funds. After Pryor’s narrow loss in the Democratic Party primary runoff, she was hired by the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration as secretary to the director, Richard Heath. She met Frank White in 1975 when he was director of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (later the Arkansas Economic Development Commission); they dated and were married later that year. The Whites had no children of their own, but Frank White was granted full custody of the three children by his first marriage—Elizabeth, Rebecca, and Kyle—in 1976, and Gay White became a full-time stepmother.
In 1980, when her husband embarked on what was an improbable bid for the governorship, Gay White, like most others, was skeptical of her husband’s chances. When White said that he wanted to be the Republican nominee for governor, she responded, “Normal people don’t do things like that!” Once the initial shock had worn off, she was her husband’s constant companion on the campaign trail for seven months, gaining goodwill for his candidacy. After a whirlwind campaign, she would share the national spotlight with her husband in what many consider to be the biggest political upset in Arkansas history, defeating Democrat Bill Clinton after Clinton had served only one term as governor. (White himself was limited to one term when Clinton reclaimed the office of governor in 1982.)
A popular first lady, Gay White adopted senior citizens’ issues as one of her chief causes. She also served as state chair for the Mothers’ March of Dimes Campaign and was active in programs at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. She was particularly known during her tenure for conducting regular morning tours of the Governor’s Mansion. One of the largest tours that she conducted commemorated the tenth anniversary of the Arkansas chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). At her invitation, First Lady Nancy Reagan joined her in 1981 on a statewide tour of Arkansas’s high schools promoting the “Just Say No to Drugs” initiative, and she represented Arkansas at the White House Conference on Aging.
After her husband’s term ended in 1983, Gay White continued her involvement in politics. She was active in Little Rock civic affairs, promoting youth literacy efforts, such as the Reading for Fun program and programs promoting better nutrition. She served on the speaker’s bureau for the Twentieth Century Club, informing high school students about the dangers of smoking. She continued her efforts on behalf of the Nature Conservancy, and as a reflection of her love of the state’s outdoor recreational opportunities, a pair of her hiking boots is displayed in her section of the first ladies’ exhibit at the Old State House Museum.
After her husband’s death in 2003, White continued to be prominent in Republican circles, presiding at the inauguration of the “Hi, I’m Frank White” Awards in 2006 to honor those who helped build the Arkansas Republican Party. She also became active in efforts to increase women’s financial literacy by serving on the Delta Trust Women’s Advisory Council, sponsored by Delta Bank & Trust, then headed by future U.S. Representative French Hill, a close friend of the Whites’. She began serving the Old State House as a board member of the Old State House Museum Associates, and she served on the namesake committee for the littoral combat ship (LCS) USS Little Rock, which was commissioned at Buffalo, New York, on December 16, 2017. She and Bill Sigler married in September 2018.
For additional information:
“Gay White Addresses Christian Women’s Group.” Star Progress, December 18, 1989, p. 3.
Hewett, Vonnie. “Next First Lady Welcomes Opportunities, Challenges.” Arkansas Gazette, January 11, 1981.
McMath, Anne. First Ladies of Arkansas: Women of Their Times. Little Rock: August House, 1989.
Pyron, Jennifer. “Former First Lady of Arkansas Gay White on Teaching Women to Make Smart Financial Decisions.” Little Rock Soiree, June 1, 2013.
Robinson, Camille. “First Ladies of the South: Mrs. Frank White, Arkansas.” State Government News, February 1982.
“She Never Expected to Be There: Gay White, First Lady (1981–83).” Old State House Museum Blog, August 21, 2018. http://www.oldstatehouse.com/blog/she-never-expected-to-be-there-gay-white-first-lady-of-arkansas-1981-1983 (accessed April 1, 2020).
Shiras, Ginger. “Never Expected Husband to Win Governorship, Mrs. White Says.” Arkansas Gazette, December 10, 1980, pp. 1A, 2A.
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