Gaylord Arlo Tyer (1911–1985)

Arlo Tyer was an Arkansas businessman and politician who served as a county official in his native Randolph County in the 1960s and in two separate stints in the Arkansas House of Representatives in the 1960s and 1970s. A previously low-key county official, Tyer fired one of the opening shots of the culture wars that would erupt in the 1980s.

Gaylord Arlo Tyer was born on September 15, 1911, in the Water Valley community of rural Randolph County, the oldest of five children of Silas Lafayette and Emma Mae Vermilye Tyer. After military service and his marriage to Mary Lou Mock in 1946, Tyer engaged in farming and small business until his election to the Arkansas House in 1952, where he served two terms as a Democrat. Returning to private life for a time, he reentered public service in 1966 when he was elected to the first of five two-year terms as Randolph County Circuit Clerk.

Tyer’s wife died in 1972, and the following year, he married Ruth Ann Brown.

He retired as clerk in 1976 in order to challenge and unseat a seven-term House incumbent. Up to that point, there had been nothing particularly noteworthy in his public service, even though he was a popular and well-respected figure in his home county. However, Tyer was about to enter a legislature quite unlike what he had known in the 1950s.

When Tyer reentered the House for the 1977 session, David Pryor, who had led the “Young Turk” faction in the House during the Orval Faubus era, was governor, and the ranks of “Old Guard” veterans still in the House had been thinned out in the 1976 election, most notably Perry County’s Paul Van Dalsem. Nonetheless, Tyer decided to get in the public eye early as part of what the Arkansas Gazette described as the legislature’s having “discovered sex” and deciding to “do something about it.” The first two bills out of the gate were Tyer’s: HB 237 would have prohibited X- and R-rated movies, while HB 238 would have imposed a tax of $1,500 on men and women who lived together outside of marriage. Still further, the legislation said couples would also be required to obtain blood tests and a permit from a chancery judge to continue living together, if able to show “good cause.” Tyer’s response to criticism of the bill was to imply that cohabiting couples were somehow abnormal: “They [cohabiting couples] may have a desire for each other, physically and maybe even spiritually, but they don’t want to conform. This country was built on conformity.”

Further complicating Tyer’s plans was the newly elected young attorney general, Bill Clinton. Clinton recalled Tyer fondly years later: “Arlo was a decent man who wanted to stay one step ahead of the Moral Majority,” a Christian Conservative group founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Clinton was asked to give his legal opinion of the legislation, particularly on the question of whether it restricted freedom of speech. Clinton said that he could see headlines like “Attorney General Comes Out for Dirty Movies!” First, Clinton consulted Judge Robert Dudley from Tyer’s hometown of Pocahontas (Randolph County). When Clinton inquired of the judge as to how many X-rated movies were shown in the town, Dudley’s reply was, “We don’t have any movie theaters at all. He’s just jealous of the rest of you seeing that stuff.” The bill quietly died in committee.

Yet there was still the matter of Tyer’s bill taxing cohabiting couples. The matter of a “living together permit” was also drawing legal scrutiny as well as some guffaws in the public square. Clinton again claimed to fear headlines like “Clinton Comes Out for Living in Sin!” Clinton decided to meet with Tyer face to face and ask a series of questions on the bill. Among them were, “How long do a man and woman have to cohabit to pay the tax?” He further inquired of Tyer, “Are you and I going to get baseball bats and knock down doors to see who’s doing what with whom?” After some reflection, Tyer decided to pull down the bill. Yet some of Clinton’s staff, surprised by Tyer’s action, feigned disappointment, imagining themselves as an enforcement unit called SNIF, or the “Sex No-No Investigation Force.” Yet the Arkansas Gazette’s editorial writers were less lighthearted toward what they considered as the constitutional bullet that the state had dodged. They pointed out that Tyer had claimed that his supporters were in the majority on the issue, but that “they [his opposition] are telling the majority that they are going to do as they please, and as long as it [dirty movies and cohabiting couples] is permitted [by the majority], it will just grow and grow.” It was apparent that Tyer was not through with that issue.

Tyer was reelected in 1978 as Clinton went to the Governor’s Mansion, and he was back with the adult movies bill (although he left unmarried couples alone). This time the bill would have resulted in a $250 to $500 fine for showing said movies, and a thirty-day jail term for showing one in a school. On this occasion, though, it was legislative camaraderie that carried the bill out of a House committee and on to the floor with a “do pass” recommendation. Whether out of sympathy for his colleague or an acknowledgement of Tyer’s lack of effectiveness, State Agencies Committee chair Mack Thompson of Paragould (Greene County) told his colleagues that Tyer “had been a faithful member of the committee, had attended all meetings. This is the only bill he’s had and it’s important to him.” Important or no, the bill was promptly killed on the House floor in spite of Thompson’s plea, and the notoriety from the effort boomeranged on Tyer in the 1980 Democratic primary, as he was beaten by a nearly two-to-one margin.

Tyer was a symbol of the past seeking a place in a legislative body where an increasing number of his colleagues were slowly embracing modernizing policies and trying to dodge the social convulsions left over from the 1960s that were beginning to bubble to the surface in the otherwise calm mid-to-late 1970s in Arkansas. As the new culture wars swept the state and the country in the 1980s, Tyer was largely on the sidelines, involved in local matters until his death on April 9, 1985. He is buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Pocahontas.

For additional information:
“Arlo Tyer Bows to Inevitable.” Arkansas Gazette, February 1, 1977, p. 10A.

Blair, Diane D., and Jay Barth, eds. Arkansas Politics and Government. 2nd ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Clinton, Bill. My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

“Cohabitation Tax, Other Bills Aimed at ‘Deviant Acts.’” Arkansas Gazette, January 23, 1977, p. 6A.

“Remembering Arlo Tyer, Bill Stancil.” Arkansas Gazette, June 15, 1980, p. 1E.

Revis Edmonds
Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism


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