Sidney Sanders McMath
Sidney Sanders McMath came into the world on Flag Day, June 14, 1912, in a dogtrot cabin on the "Mc-Math Homeplace" near Magnolia, Columbia County, Arkansas. He was the son of Hal Pierce "Pap" McMath and Nettie Belle Sanders McMath. He had as forebears, a Revolutionary War soldier who met George Washington; a great uncle who was killed in the Texas War of Independence ; two Civil War great-grandfathers ; and his father's father was Sidney Smith McMath, a sheriff killed in the line of duty.
Young Sidney lived on the Mc-Math Homeplace, but the family moved around to such places as Taylor, Foreman and Bussey, Ark. It was at the latter he attended a oneroom school to read and say the Pledge of Allegiance as well as fighting another boy over the privilege of carrying Old Glory, a symbol for which he had a lifelong devotion.
Life was fraught with all the difficulties and joys of the rural South. His memory could not recall a time he was not riding horses, hunting, listening to stories and choring, till, at age 8, he started picking cotton for a penny a pound. Shortly afterwards he rode a mule named "Old Mamie" to Magnolia with his sister, Edyth, sitting behind for some shopping. He bought a new cap, shirt, overalls, a collar for his dog and chocolate for his mother, which melted in his pocket on the ride home.
In a word, he experienced the happiness unique to the American South. But he also saw something else: poverty, ignorance and injustice visited upon white and black by the legacy of slavery, Civil War and the so-called Reconstruction.
In his autobiography, Promises Kept, he states:
"My roots were planted deep in the South, the Old South, the South that remembered. The South that could not forget the memories of the Civil War and its aftermath, occupation by Union troops, carpetbag rule, economic depression, and hard times."
As a boy he promised to do something about it.
They went with Pap to the Smackover oil boom, then to Hot Springs, where 10-year-old Sidney felt the revolution of going from farm to town. Pap sold the horses and got a job, while Sidney felt his first paved street. (He would admit with a smile that paving roads henceforth became something of an obsession.) More importantly he went to public schools.
Picking cotton succumbed to hawking newspapers to tourists, horses unsaddled for cars, and tales for movies and books; the oneroomer was exchanged for a school that offered speech, debate, history, English and drama. He was kidded about his accent but lost enough to play the lead in The Valiant - it won the state prize. (Yet he always spoke with a trace of the Deep South, purring out as a mellifluous lilt, soft and hard, gentle and charming, like the evening light just touching the cotton.)
The final line of The Valiant was: "Cowards die many times before their death; the valiant n'er taste of death but once." In a sense, it was his motto.
He made Eagle Scout, went to Henderson and the University of Arkansas; was class president, played Hamlet, got a law degree and was the honor ROTC graduate. The latter led to the U.S. Marines, fulfilling a childhood promise to wear the Eagle, Globe and Anchor and serve his country.
A 2nd Lt. in '36, his commander was Lewis "Chesty" Puller and, after returning to Hot Springs to marry his sweetheart, Elaine Braughton, Sidney, seeing war on the horizon, returned to uniform in '40. He trained officers (including two future Commandants,) helped organized a new division; promoted to major, he ran the Jungle Warfare School on Samoa; went to Guadalcanal; led a secret landing on Vella Lavella; served on New Georgia and was the staff officer of the 3rd Marines during Bougainville campaign. He was cited for bravery, directed the Battle of Piva Forks to victory (the pivotal action), received a battlefield promotion to Lt. Colonel and was awarded the Silver Star and Legion of Merit. He retired as a Major General - was every inch a Marine's Marine.
After the death of Elaine, he married Anne Phillips, his partner for almost half a century, as the post war years brought Hot Springs and the GI revolt. "We had fought for democracy abroad and thought we ought to have some at home." Sidney was elected Prosecuting Attorney and his GI slate swept to victory in a stunning defeat of an entrenched political machine.
As a boy, Sidney had promised himself he would do something about Hot Springs and he did.
In '48 this success led to two terms in the governor's office. During his tenure, he paved more roads than anyone, built the Medical School, fought for civil rights, defeated the Dixiecrats as an ally of Truman, repealed the "whites only" rule for the Democratic Party, helped Ark. A.M. and N., integrated the Medical and Law schools. But he also insisted on bringing rural electrification to the counties in the dark. This ran afoul of the utilities and they conspired to defeat him for a third term.
Following this he organized his law firm with his good friends Henry Woods and Leland Leatherman and it became one of the premier trial firms in America. The young man who learned debate at Hot Springs High was eventually elected President of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, as he, in his favorite scripture, strove to "to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow."
He is survived by his wife, Betty Ruth Dortch Russell McMath and five children, Sandy, Phillip and Bruce McMath, Melissa Hatfield and Patricia Bueter; 10 grandchildren, McKenzie, Savannah and Ian McMath, Robert, Phillip and Sid McMath, Sydney Bueter Blackmon and Bonnie and Jennifer Bueter and Carl F. Keller III; and one great-grandchild, James McMath.
Sidney Sanders McMath loved his family, Arkansas, the South and his country. He was as great a man as one can know or ever hope to know. And he kept his promises.
The family requests that in lieu of flowers memorials be made to Henderson State University or Lions World Services for the Blind.
Funeral services will be held Wednesday, October 7, at 2 p.m. at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church officiated by Reverend Victor Nixon. Burial will follow at Pinecrest Memorial Park. Former Governor McMath will lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, October 7th. There will be reception held at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church following the interment in Pinecrest Memorial Park.
Arrangements are under the direction of Ruebel Funeral Home.