Mary Ann Ritter Arnold (1927–2017)
Mary Ann Ritter Arnold became president of E. Ritter & Company, one of the most successful family-owned businesses in the state, in 1976. The company, established in the early twentieth century by Arnold’s great-grandfather Ernest Herman Ritter Jr. and based in Marked Tree (Poinsett County), distributes agricultural supplies and telecommunication services throughout northeast Arkansas and north-central Arkansas; it also includes farming and cotton–ginning operations. Arnold became the first female mayor of Marked Tree, was inducted into the Arkansas Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1998, and was an inaugural inductee into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame in 2015.
The only daughter of Louis V. Ritter Sr. and Betty Hart Ritter, Mary Ann Ritter was born on April 25, 1927, in Memphis, Tennessee. Just before her birth, rising waters during the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 forced her mother to flee Marked Tree by train. Despite buckling train tracks, Betty Ritter arrived safely in Memphis in time for the birth.
The school at Marked Tree was not up to her parents’ standards, so Mary Ann Ritter attended high school and the first two years of college at Stephens College, a small private girls’ school in Columbia, Missouri. She stayed in Columbia and attended the University of Missouri (MU) to complete a BA in home economics. She married fellow MU student Sidney Arnold.
Her husband attended medical school at what is now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in Little Rock (Pulaski County). The family first settled in Prairie Grove (Washington County) but returned to Little Rock for a few years for Sidney Arnold to complete a residency in obstetrics. He then accepted a job in Birmingham, Alabama, at a United Mine Workers’ clinic. She was a stay-at-home mother to their three children.
In the mid-1960s, Arnold’s husband was offered a teaching position at the University of Tennessee Medical School in Memphis, and the family moved again. After her mother died in 1974, Arnold and her family moved back to Marked Tree into her parents’ large home, Rittwood, on the St. Francis River. As her children grew up and moved away, Arnold decided to learn the family business.
In 1976, the president of E. Ritter & Company, Arnold’s cousin Louis Newsom, died of cancer. The fourth generation of the family was not yet old enough to take command of the business, and the third-generation cousins were all women; at the time, women in Arkansas rarely held higher-level management positions. When the family gathered to select a new leader, Arnold made her pitch: although she had no formal training or experience in business management, she had sent a husband through medical school and had done all the budgeting and managing it took to raise a family. They decided to give her a chance, and she assumed the presidency.
Like her father, who had also served as company president, she believed that the future of E. Ritter & Company was closely tied to the success of Marked Tree. She promoted not only the business but the town as well, including spearheading the revitalization of the downtown business district to attract new people and industry.
During her tenure as president, the company continued to grow. In the early 1990s, a new business structure became necessary. Her oldest son, Ernest Arnold, had been involved in the business and was ready to assume the presidency. She became chairman of the board in 1992.
In that position, she served as the company’s representative to organizations such as the National Cotton Council, United States Rice Council, Agriculture Council of Arkansas, Cotton Board, Arkansas Telephone Association, U.S. Telephone Association, Southern Cotton Ginners Association, and Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies (OPASTCO); in addition, she was state chairman of the Farm Services Agency Committee.
She was also involved in local organizations such as the Crittenden Hospital Board, Arkansas Children’s Hospital Foundation, Arkansas State University Museum Advisory Committee, Arkansas State University Business School Advisory Committee, Arkansas State University Foundation, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, Marked Tree Chamber of Commerce, Marked Tree Museum-Library, Marked Tree school system, and Girl Scouts. She served as a Poinsett County justice of the peace and was a member of the Marked Tree First United Methodist Church. She also worked closely with the Arkansas and Missouri congressional delegations on agriculture-related issues and received an appointment from President Bill Clinton to chair the Arkansas Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Service.
In 2013, Marked Tree’s mayor died, leaving the position vacant. Arnold ran for the position in a special election and won. She was subsequently reelected in the regular election.
Mary Ann Ritter Arnold died on December 21, 2017, at hospice in Jonesboro (Craighead County).
For additional information:
Grisham, Cindy. E. Ritter & Company: Honoring the Past, Preparing for the Future. Marked Tree, AR: E. Ritter & Company, 2015.
Hosticka, Alexis. “Mary Ann Ritter Arnold: Business and Community Leader.” Arkansas Business, August 24, 2015.
Lyon, John. “Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame Names First Inductees.” Arkansas News, June 22, 2015. http://arkansasnews.com/news/arkansas/arkansas-women-s-hall-fame-names-first-inductees (accessed April 21, 2021).
Provost, Richard. “The Bloom Is On: She Came Late to the Family Firm, but Mary Ann Ritter Arnold Hasn’t Been Held Back One Bit.” Arkansas Business, April 10, 1989.
Whayne, Jeannie. A New Plantation South: Land, Labor, and Federal Favor in Twentieth-Century Arkansas. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996.
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