William Leach Spicer (1918–2005)

William Leach Spicer was a businessman and Republican Party activist. In the early 1960s, he oversaw the beginning stages of the party’s emergence as a competitive force against the long-dominant Democratic Party. In 1964, however, he lost a power struggle with fellow Republican Winthrop Rockefeller and resigned as state chairman. While Spicer played a substantive role in developing the state’s Republican Party, Rockefeller’s vision was ultimately vindicated by his own election as governor in 1966.

William L. Spicer was born on October 12, 1918, in Yell County. He was the only child of William Jacob Spicer, who was a Methodist minister, and his wife, Ora Leach Spicer. As his father preached at various churches, Spicer grew up first in Woodruff County and then later in Wynne (Cross County). He graduated from Booneville High School in 1936, before going on to Hendrix College, from which he earned a degree in economics in 1940. Following graduation, he entered the Civil Aeronautics Administration pilot training program. Spicer then served in the Naval Air Transport Service (NATS) and was in charge of NATS facilities in Australia, Guam, and Okinawa. After World War II was over, he left the Naval Reserves as a lieutenant commander.

In 1946, he married Freda Cowell in Sydney, Australia; the couple had three children.

Returning to the United States, Spicer established himself as a prosperous businessman—at one time, he owned a chain of drive-in movie theaters and later opened Arkansas’s first K-Mart.

In 1956, Spicer entered the political arena. Running as a Republican, he sought the U.S. House of Representatives seat for the Third Congressional District, challenging Democratic incumbent James W. Trimble, who was seeking his seventh term. Spicer garnered a credible 38.7 percent of the vote and was determined to stay involved in party politics.

In 1962, when the incumbent Republican state party chair, Ben C. Henley, decided to step aside, Spicer sought the post. His prospects were strengthened by the support of Winthrop Rockefeller, the party’s national committeeman and largest financial supporter. He faced opposition from Henry M. Britt, an attorney from Hot Springs (Garland County) who had been the party’s 1960 gubernatorial nominee. Spicer won the election. Recognizing the importance of Republican unity in the effort to expand the reach and appeal of the party, Spicer named Britt the party’s general counsel.

That marked the high point for the Republicans’ unity effort, as the party split during the contentious battle for the 1964 presidential nomination. Spicer and others favored the conservative option, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Rockefeller, however, not only supported the liberal alternative—his brother, Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York—but he embarked on a campaign of his own, running for governor of Arkansas. His platform was far more in line with his brother’s liberal agenda than with the conservative trend that was developing in Arkansas in the wake of Goldwater’s successful quest for the Republican presidential nomination.

Rockefeller proved to be more liberal than Spicer and his allies could abide. As a previous national committeeman, as well as chief financial supporter of the state’s Republican Party, Rockefeller had created a financial operation that was, in reality, an independent operation, separate from the official state organization. Its employees, notwithstanding their technical role as party functionaries, had a greater loyalty to him than to the state party, which left Spicer in an awkward position. Rockefeller’s decision to pursue the office of governor in 1964 only exacerbated all of these tensions. While Spicer acknowledged his differences with Rockefeller, he was no match for his power. After the Republican national convention, Spicer stepped aside as state party chair. While Rockefeller’s gubernatorial bid was unsuccessful in 1964, he laid the groundwork for a successful effort in 1966, one that ratified his more moderate vision of the Republican Party as he became the first Republican since Reconstruction to be elected governor of Arkansas.

With no future in the Rockefeller-dominated Republican Party, Spicer accepted an assignment from U.S. Senator John McClellan to buy, sell, and handle property for the American Foreign Service. By this time, his marriage had ended. In 1972, Spicer met Foreign Service officer Cordelia Sanborn. They married the next year. He continued to work for the Foreign Service until 1976, when he retired.

Spicer and his wife moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Dallas, Texas, before finally settling in Spokane, Washington. They were living there when Spicer died on March 14, 2005. He is buried in Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake, Washington.

For additional information:
Obituary of William J. [sic] Spicer. Times Record (Fort Smith, Arkansas), March 29, 2005. Online at http://test.swtimes.com/archive/2005/March/29/obits.html (accessed November 17, 2015).

Urwin, Cathy K. Agenda for Reform: Winthrop Rockefeller as Governor of Arkansas, 1967–1971. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.

Ward, John L. The Arkansas Rockefeller. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated: 11/23/2015

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