Joe Thomas Ford (1937–)

Joe Thomas Ford, son of Arkansas’s longtime top school official Arch Ford, embarked on a political career as a young man but then devoted himself to his business, building it into one of the largest communications companies in the world. His political career comprised four terms—sixteen years—as a state senator from Pulaski County. His once tiny rural telephone company was growing rapidly and in 1982 he had to make a choice: to either quit politics or his business. His name had come up in speculation about higher offices—governor or Congress. He quit politics, or at least the electoral aspect of it, and did not run for reelection. In 2008, Ford sold his company, Alltel, to Verizon Communications, Inc., for $28 billion. Ford was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame at the University of Arkansas Walton College of Business in 2000.

Joe T. Ford was born on June 24, 1937, in Conway (Faulkner County). His father, Archibald Washington (Arch) Ford, was a teacher in rural schools around Wooster, Mayflower, and Plumerville. Arch Ford and his wife, Ruby Lee Watson Ford, had three sons, but the first two died as children, one from eating a poison berry and the second from meningitis. The elder Ford worked during the Great Depression with help from federal relief programs like the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and finally the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which hired him as an education adviser. During World War II, Arch Ford landed a job in the Arkansas Department of Education, earned a master’s degree, and in 1953 became the state commissioner of education. He would hold the job through five governors, until 1978.

Joe Ford went to Conway public schools, where he starred on the football, basketball, and track teams. He went to college first at Arkansas State College (now Arkansas State University) in Jonesboro (Craighead County) to play basketball but transferred the next year to the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and gave up sports. He received a bachelor’s degree in business in 1959 and married Jo Ellen Wilbourn, the daughter of a telephone lineman for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, Hugh Wilbourn. The couple would have a son and a daughter.

Wilbourn and his brother-in-law, also a Bell employee, bought a tiny rural telephone company in Grant County from W. R. “Witt” Stephens, whose aging mother in Prattsville (Grant County) was a customer of the phone service. The two men began to acquire other rural companies around Arkansas, formed Allied Telephone Company, and hired Ford to sell advertising for its Yellow Pages. Ford eventually became its president in 1977. In the meantime, the elder Ford had necessarily become somewhat embroiled in the school integration battle after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 ordered an end to segregated public schools, and Governor Orval E. Faubus, Ford’s boss, used the state militia to keep Black children out of Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1957. Conservative forces in the legislature, including state Representative Paul Van Dalsem of Perryville (Perry County), thought Ford had not been forceful enough in defense of Faubus and in preserving segregation in the schools. A Van Dalsem bill in 1963 would have required the commissioner of education to have a doctoral degree, which would have ousted Ford. Opposition from education forces around the state and the Arkansas Gazette persuaded Faubus to have the bill pulled down.

Three years later, in 1966, the younger Ford ran for an open state Senate seat from Pulaski County and was elected. When Dale Bumpers was elected governor in 1970 promising major school reforms, he embraced a number of reforms suggested by Arch Ford, including a statewide system of kindergartens, free textbooks in high schools, the education of disabled children in the public schools, expanded vocational schools and community colleges, and drastically higher teacher salaries. Senator Ford would lead the effort in the Senate for several of the school reforms, especially kindergartens and schooling for children with disabilities.

Allied Telephone Company was growing quickly, acquiring independent telephone companies across Arkansas and states of the Southeast and Midwest and getting into the wireless revolution in the communication industry. It became the first telephone company in the country to offer local digital telephone service. Ford led the company through more than 250 mergers and acquisitions as far away as California. In 1983, he negotiated a merger with the much larger Mid-Continent Telephone Company of Ohio. It became Alltel, Ford became the chief executive officer and chairman of the board, and the operation moved to a massive tree-lined campus that created a new urban skyline along the Arkansas River in the Riverdale area of Little Rock. Alltel acquired the naming rights to a new sports and entertainment arena in North Little Rock (Pulaski County). When Ford and his son Scott, by then the chief executive officer, negotiated the sale of Alltel to Verizon in 2008, the arena’s name converted from Alltel Arena to Verizon Arena (and then later to Simmons Bank Arena).

Joe and Scott Ford eventually started a new venture, Westrock Coffee Company, marketing coffee grown in the eastern African country of Rwanda.

Ford led a number of business organizations. He was president of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, the Baptist Medical System, the City Education Trust, and the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. A passionate golfer, Ford was for years vice chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, the site in Georgia of the annual Masters golf tournament.

For additional information:
Beckman, Cindy Burnett. Man of Vision: Arkansas Education and the Legacy of Arch Ford. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2016.

Harbour, James Chandler, III. An Ordinary Joe: An Extraordinary Life. Dallas, TX: Lifestories, Inc., 2016. Online at https://anyflip.com/gkre/vnxh/basic/451-478 (accessed January 13, 2022).

Patten, David A., and Jeffrey L. Rodengen. The Legend of Alltel. Fort Lauderdale, FL: Write Stuff Enterprises, 2001.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 01/13/2022