Stewart Keeling (Stew) Prosser (1925–1976)
Stewart Keeling (Stew) Prosser was an Arkansas public administrator, lobbyist, and politician who waged an almost comical campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1956. This previously little-known thirty-one-year-old state employee walked into the Arkansas State Capitol on the last day of candidate filing in 1956 and became a candidate for governor, then put no serious effort into his run. In fact, everything about his campaign was unserious, from outlandish campaign promises to his slogans, like “Get in the Pot with Stew.” While over 1,600 voters did so, Stew Prosser’s almost manic effort belied another side of the candidate: he was a highly competent, business-savvy public administrator who became one of the state’s most effective lobbyists.
Stew Prosser was born in San Francisco, California, on September 20, 1925. His father was a U.S. Army officer and doctor who was moved to several duty stations in his son’s early life, including San Francisco, Honolulu, and Hot Springs (Garland County). His mother, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, native, died when he was seven, and had two children other than Stewart: Bill and Betsy. His stepmother was from Huntsville (Madison County). When Prosser was seventeen, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines and served during World War II at the Battle of Iwo Jima, where he was wounded. He did occupation duty in Japan until his discharge in 1946.
Settling in Arkansas, he initially enrolled at Hendrix College in Conway (Faulkner County) and planned to pledge a fraternity. However, one of the episodes of hazing involved wearing a beanie, and Prosser’s daughter Angela remembered her father recalling that he said, “I’m a Marine and no one’s gonna make me wear a beanie!” He left Hendrix soon afterward and ultimately earned a degree in political science from Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) in Conway.
After graduation in 1950, Prosser worked for the Arkansas Public Service Commission until 1956. In 1954, he served as a driver for state Senator Guy H. “Mutt” Jones of Conway when he ran for governor but supported Orval Faubus in the runoff when his friend was eliminated in the first primary. On May 2, 1956, just twenty minutes before the filing deadline, Prosser filed as the fifth candidate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. His initial statement indicated that he would advance a more conventional platform, such as an increase in the minimum wage for women from thirty-five to fifty cents an hour and an increase in the oil and gas severance tax to be split equally between welfare and education; he also considered himself a moderate on integration.
Prosser did little campaign travel, relying on impromptu press conferences and print advertisements in the state newspapers to advance his messages. He pledged to voters that he would “outpromise any other candidate for Governor, and after election give you what I want you to have.” He led off with a promise to reroute the Panama Canal through Arkansas. Then a bachelor, he promised fifty-one female voters the job of hostess at the Governor’s Mansion, while later admitting that he meant to make that promise only forty times. He also pledged to provide “elephant dipping vats on a statewide basis, regardless of what my opponents may have told you.” He claimed the “endorsements” of the Buggy Whip Manufacturers of Faulkner County, the Society to Promote Dipping Vats for Elephants, and the administrative staff of Toad Suck Ferry. In his print ads, Prosser proclaimed himself as “against sin,” and he pledged to voters, “I will love you the same in January as I love you in July.” Angela Prosser later claimed that Faubus had persuaded Prosser to enter the race, ostensibly to take votes and attention from his principal opponents, two former state senators—Jim Johnson, who headed the state’s White Citizens’ Council, and Jim Snoddy, former executive secretary to Governor Francis Cherry—and so avoid a runoff. However, that effort was likely not necessary for that purpose, as Faubus was renominated with fifty-eight percent of the vote. Prosser ran fourth in the five-man race, but with just 1,653 votes. He never sought public office again, although he hinted on another run in 1960, that time with a pledge to annex Texas to Arkansas and announcement of the formation of the “Committee to Restore the Deflated Ego of the Great State of Texas.” Prosser, in the end, did not enter the race.
Prosser returned to state government after the primary, taking a job with the Arkansas Commerce Commission along with becoming a partner in a Little Rock (Pulaski County) nightclub and purchasing a racehorse. The nightclub, known as the Gung Ho Club, was owned along with World War II hero John Yancey. He also served as an informal adviser to Faubus, who appointed him in 1962 as director of Arkansas’s Office of Civil Defense (which later became the Division of Emergency Management). Under Prosser, the facility was located in an underground facility on Donaghey Avenue in Conway known as Civil Defense Hill.
In 1958, Prosser married Pearl Dodds, better known as “PP,” a Riverside, California, native who was a social worker for the state Welfare Department, and later a caseworker for the Department of Health. They had four children: Angela, Lila, Yancey, and Stewart. (Prosser named his son Stewart William Orval Prosser in Faubus’s honor.) Prosser was active in all Faubus’s remaining campaigns through the 1970s. His term at the Civil Defense agency was marked by preparations related to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the establishment of fallout shelters in the years of the Cold War, and relief efforts from a number of natural disasters, most notably the great tornado of 1965 that struck Conway, doing extensive damage to the city and the newly opened Arkansas Children’s Colony (which later became the Conway Human Development Center). Winning accolades for his management of the agency after initial doubts, he was still not retained after Winthrop Rockefeller succeeded Faubus in 1967. He sought the position of executive secretary (a position later renamed executive director) of the Arkansas Democratic Party in 1967 with Faubus’s backing, but the job went to a candidate supported by the faction led by Jim Johnson, the 1966 gubernatorial nominee and rival of Faubus.
Off the state payroll for the first time in sixteen years, Prosser relied on the contacts he had made in the years he worked in the Faubus administration for his next move. The key contact for that purpose was Guy Campbell, a close friend and board chairman of the Arkansas Bus and Truck Association. With that backing, Prosser was hired in the summer of 1967 as general manager of the association, the group’s chief lobbyist. Prosser was an active and effective advocate for the industry before the Arkansas General Assembly and state and federal regulators, helped by his gregarious personality and longstanding relationships in state government. He became a fixture at Little Rock’s most popular meeting places, particularly the Coachman’s Inn and the Camelot Hotel, and was active at events where lobbyists sought after policymakers most. He became known for his love of three-martini lunches, cheesecake, and Lucky Strikes.
Prosser was involved in a serious auto accident in 1974 that left him in a wheelchair, and his injuries and associated weight gain caused him increasing heart problems. On May 20, 1976, during the association’s annual convention at the Camelot Hotel in Little Rock, he complained of indigestion and went to his room, where he died suddenly of a massive heart attack. He was buried with honors at Little Rock National Cemetery.
For additional information:
Kennedy, Jon. Look Back and Laugh: 38 Years of Arkansas Political Cartoons. Little Rock: The Pioneer, 1979.
Martin, Ed. “Stew Prosser Eyes Gubernatorial Campaign in 1960, Would Annex Texas to Arkansas.” Harrison Times, August 8, 1958, p. 3.
“Prosser Named CD Director for Arkansas.” Arkansas Gazette, August 2, 1962, p. 3A.
Smith, Michael B. “Lybrand Gets Party Job Without a Fight.” Blytheville Courier-News, May 30, 1967, p. 12.
“Stewart K. Prosser Dies Thursday in Little Rock.” Benton Courier, May 21, 1976, p. 13.
“Trucking Executive, Former Candidate for Governor Dies.” Arkansas Gazette, May 21, 1976, 4A.
Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism
This entry is adapted from a blog post published on the website of the Division of Arkansas Heritage and is used here with permission.
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