Featured Interview

David Hampton Pryor


Former U.S. Senator David Pryor died peacefully of natural causes on April 20, 2024, at his home in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was 89 years old and surrounded by his family. A popular public figure, devoted family man, and self-effacing raconteur, he will be greatly missed.

David Hampton Pryor was born in Camden, Arkansas, on August 29, 1934, to William Edgar and Susan Newton Pryor. He was the third of four siblings (Bill, Cornelia, and Elinor). His father, who went by "Edgar," owned a Chevrolet dealership in Camden and served as the Ouachita County Sheriff for four years. His mother, known widely as "Susie," championed women's suffrage and became the first woman in Arkansas to run for public office.

Pryor's first foray into politics was in the third grade when he ran for class president against two other students. He later told of anxiously standing in the hallway outside the classroom as the votes were being counted: "I promised God that if He would let me win this election, I would never run for political office again." When he returned to the classroom and learned he had won, he said, "Before I returned to my seat, I was already planning my race for fourth-grade president." Such was the humor and passion that marked Pryor's life-long career in public service.

After earning his college degree from the University of Arkansas in 1957, Pryor married Barbara Jean Lunsford and moved to Camden, where they founded and edited The Ouachita Citizen, a newspaper with a progressive bent in a conservative part of the state. David and Barbara formed a dynamic duo, acting as a single force that would serve as the blueprint throughout their rise in Arkansas and national politics. David would return to the University of Arkansas and earn his law degree in 1964.

At the age of 26, Pryor won a seat in the Arkansas House of Representatives, marking the beginning of a political career that spanned over three decades. His journey was marked by various offices, including State Representative, U.S. Congressman, Arkansas Governor, and U.S. Senator. He lost only one of 13 elections for public office. This remarkable achievement is a testament to his popularity and unwavering dedication to public service, leaving an indelible mark on Arkansas politics.

Any time spent out and about with David Pryor meant an ongoing stream of people approaching for a handshake, embrace, or conversation. Pryor treasured these interactions. He was known to keep small notecards and a blue felt-tip pen on hand to jot the names and concerns of those he met and ensure they received his attention once he returned to work. Throughout his time in public office, he displayed a placard on his desk bearing the phrase, "Arkansas Comes First." The words summed up his life's work.

While serving as a congressman in the late ’60s, Pryor famously went undercover so he could witness the unsafe conditions in nursing homes. House leadership rebuked his requests for hearings, so he established the unofficial "House Trailer Committee on Aging." His efforts led to significant improvements in America's nursing homes and the creation of an official House Committee on Aging. He ultimately chaired the Senate Special Committee on Aging in 1989 and the White House Conference on Aging in 1996.

As Arkansas's 39th governor (1974-1978), he used his two terms to expand Arkansas tourism, improve all sectors of the state’s economy, modernize state government, and try to reform the state constitution.

During his 18 years as a U.S. Senator, he was a stalwart advocate for seniors, farmers, families, and small businesses. His reformist zeal led him to tackle abuses in nursing homes, unethical consulting practices of government officials, fiscal responsibility in defense spending, pharmaceutical pricing practices, health care policy, and Senate ethics. In 1988, he authored the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

His leadership skills and authentic warmth led The Encyclopedia of Arkansas to dub him "arguably the most popular Arkansas politician of the modern era."

Pryor left political office in 1997, and later that year rejoined his alma mater, the University of Arkansas, as the Fulbright Distinguished Fellow of Law and Public Affairs. In 1999, Pryor expanded his academic affiliations by becoming a fellow at the Institute of Politics of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He served as the IOP's director for 2000 and 2001.

While at Harvard, Pryor traveled to Albania to volunteer for the International Rescue Committee and the Flying Doctors of America to help people in refugee camps. He drove trucks, handed out blankets, distributed food and medicine, and did whatever else he could do to ease human suffering. He was 67 at the time.

In 1999, he donated the remainder of his campaign war chest to establish the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History. This center is part of the University of Arkansas system and stands as a tangible legacy of his life’s work.

In 1997, he was the sole incorporator for the Clinton Foundation and later that year was named as one of three original trustees. In 2004, Pryor was named the Founding Dean of the Clinton School of Public Service and helped set the direction of the school’s mission. Pryor was also on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, where he was well known to favor a tilt towards students and academics over athletic programs.

Pryor was appointed to the Corporation of Public Broadcasting in 2006 and served until 2014, acting as vice chairman from 2010 to 2011. In 2019, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award as a champion of public media’s trusted independent journalism, diversity and innovation, children's educational content, and local storytelling.

Pryor was driven to serve and always put others ahead of himself. He lived "Arkansas Comes First" every day. In his 1996 retirement announcement, Pryor said, "Arkansas owes me nothing, and I owe Arkansas everything. Thank you."

Pryor is survived by his wife of 66 years, Barbara; his three sons and their wives, David, Jr. and Judith Pryor, Mark and Joi Pryor, and Scott and Diane Pryor; his four grandchildren, Hampton, Adams, Porter, and Devin; and his favorite great-grandchild, Raven.  He is also survived by his two sisters, Cornelia Lindsey of Camden and Elinor Pryor of Little Rock. In lieu of flowers or food, please consider a donation toward David Pryor's legacy of public service by sending a donation to The David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History, 1 East Center Street, Suite 120, Fayetteville, AR 72701. You may give online at https://pryorcenter.uark.edu

He will lie in state at the Arkansas State Capitol on Friday, April 26, 2024 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The visitation will be at Ruebel Funeral Home at 6313 W. Markham in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Friday, April 26, 2024 from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

A celebration of his life will be held at Second Presbyterian Church at 600 Pleasant Valley Drive in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Saturday, April 27, 2024 at 2:00 p.m.

His final resting place will be Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock, Arkansas. Arrangements are under the direction of RuebelFuneralHome.com.

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