Will Etta Long (Willie) Oates (1918–2008)
Willie Oates was a renowned civic activist in Arkansas throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Whether through her fundraising efforts for charities and nonprofit organizations or her service in the Arkansas General Assembly, she had a substantive impact on her state and its citizens—and it was all achieved in a colorful style that was characterized by the flamboyant hats that became her trademark.
Will Etta (Willie) Long was born on January 14, 1918, in Arkansas City, Kansas, to Harry L. Long and Roberta Fern Jordan Long. Harry Long, a pharmacist, was mayor of Arkansas City for several years. Willie Long arrived at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) in 1938, earning her bachelor’s degree in foreign languages in 1941. She was a member of over twenty university clubs, many of which she organized. She was also a cheerleader throughout her time at UA. She then became a fixture at each year’s homecoming game, “calling the Hogs” before a packed stadium. She met her future husband, Dr. Gordon Oates, at UA, and they married in 1941 in Arkansas City. The couple had two children.
Willie Oates completed a modeling course and also attended modeling school, and she would later use this training to raise money for numerous causes. Central to her style was an ever present hat. Reports on the size of her collection ranged from many hundreds to over 1,000, but the wide array she sported soon earned her the nickname of “Hat Lady,” and the skits she performed utilizing one of her many hats became staples of fundraising events.
Following World War II, Oates began a career of volunteerism and philanthropy. Involved with more than fifty organizations, ranging from the Arkansas AIDS Foundation to the Pulaski County chapter of the American Cancer Society to the Arkansas Federation of Women’s Clubs, she was an unparalleled civic leader. She was the first woman in the Little Rock Founders Lions Club, which is the state’s oldest Lions Club chapter, as well as the Founders Club’s first female president. In addition, she was the first woman to serve as chair of the Salvation Army Advisory Board.
Oates made one foray into the political arena, winning election to the Arkansas General Assembly, in which she served from 1959 to 1960. One piece of legislation she introduced became the first state law dealing with motorcycle safety. However, she also found herself in the midst of controversy when, at the request of constituent Griffin Smith (a seventeen-year-old high school student who would later become executive editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette), she introduced a bill that would allow the teaching of evolutionary theory in the state’s public schools. It was met by vocal opposition and, in the view of some observers, was a major reason why she did not win reelection. She then reassumed the role of citizen volunteer.
She was the recipient of numerous awards in tribute to her community contributions, including her selection in 1955 as Little Rock Woman of the Year. She received numerous honors from UA, including both the Cheerleader Award and the Community Service Award for Outstanding Alumni in 1992. She received awards from seven of the state’s governors, beginning with Orval Faubus and continuing through Mike Huckabee. She was one of the Arkansas citizens selected to carry the Olympic torch in 1996, and she was awarded the Salvation Army’s award for lifetime achievement. In 1989, by proclamation of the Arkansas General Assembly, the then eighty-one-year-old Oates was officially designated “Arkansas’s Hat Lady.”
Willie Oates died on March 4, 2008. She is interred alongside her husband in Roselawn Memorial Park in Little Rock.
For additional information:
“Obituary: Will Etta (Willie) Long Oates.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 5, 2008, p. 6B.
“Arkansas’ Hat Lady: The Story of Willie Oates.” Old State House Museum Collections Blog, June 30, 2016. https://www.oldstatehouse.com/collectionsblog/arkansas-s-hat-lady-the-story-of-willie-oats (accessed August 21, 2021).
Willie Oates Papers. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas.
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated: 10/21/2020