Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist
A commitment to God, country, and family for decades guided the path of one of the most well-liked South Arkansas legislators. Bobby Newman would serve portions of Union and Ouachita County for 30 years, ushering in important changes for the area.
Bobby Gene Newman was born in 1926 in El Dorado at the height of the oil boom and the middle of three sons. His father, B. A. Newman, worked in the boiler room at the nearby Lion Oil refinery for 46 years and walked to work every day.
Newman graduated from high school in 1944. He had earned an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy, but he his color blindness prevented his entry. Nevertheless, he insisted on serving his country and later entered the navy as an enlisted man. He later completed a degree in business and physical education at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia in 1950 and earned a masters degree in business from the University of Arkansas. He married Mary Elizabeth Raper in 1952 and had two children together. After graduation, he coached football for Blytheville High School for one year while she taught.
He returned to South Arkansas and took a job as a soap salesman for a short time, visiting all the area businesses and steadily getting to know more people in the area.
He had established himself as a respected insurance salesman in Smackover when he was approached by community members to run for the State House of Representatives in 1968. Because he was already so well-known in the area, and with the help of family, he was easily elected to the first of eighteen terms.
Education remained a great passion for Newman in the legislature. In 1975, he helped push through the legislation that created two area community colleges, SAU-Tech in East Camden and SAU-El Dorado Branch in El Dorado.
Along the many journeys he took to Little Rock on narrow, two-lane highways, he realized that there were exactly three stoplights between Smackover and Little Rock. Concerned about safety and the need to attract business to South Arkansas, he worked with other South Arkansas legislators and fellow Democrats such as State Rep. John Lipton and State Rep. Jodie Mahony for years to secure the funding to widen the highways to four lanes, a process that in 2016 is just nearing completion.
Among his proudest achievements was the passage of a breast cancer detection bill in 1997. The bill, proposed by State Rep. Josetta Wilkins, a Pine Bluff Democrat and breast cancer survivor herself, provided free mammograms for Arkansas women as early detection dramatically increased the odds of survival. The bill touched Newman personally as his own wife had contracted the disease. As he raced back and forth between the legislature and the hospital where she lay dying, Newman pleaded with his fellow legislators to pass the bill. The proud man wept as he reminded them of his wife’s struggle and that the disease could be prevented. The bill passed, saving many lives in Arkansas. Mary Newman died shortly afterward.
Newman retired from the legislature in 1998. He returned to Smackover to continue his insurance business and later remarried. He retired from his firm in 2012, shutting the door after 52 years in business.
Throughout his long legislative career, he rejected the label “politician.” Instead, he always told constituents that he preferred to be called a statesman. Over the years, he became a mentor to many area politicians, leaving an indelible mark on the community. But according to family and friends, the accomplishment he was most proud of was his family.
In honor of his work, a portion of State Highway 7 near Smackover was renamed the Bobby Newman Bypass in 2012. Newman passed away in 2013 at the age of 86, an unassuming man of deep faith, revered in the community and loved by his family.
Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist