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V. C. Kays, Hattie Caraway spotlighted in new play for ASU Centennial Celebration Finale, Oct. 3

September 29, 2010 -- On Sunday, Oct. 3, as part of Arkansas State University’s Centennial Celebration Finale, a dramatization titled “Dear Mrs. Caraway, Dear Mr. Kays” will be presented. It is based on the actual private correspondence betweenDr. Nancy Hendricks as Sen. Hattie Caraway. Photo courtesy of Dr. Nancy Hendricks. long-time Arkansas State President V. C. Kays and Hattie Caraway of Jonesboro, the first woman elected to the United States Senate. The playwright, Dr. Nancy Hendricks, will also appear in her signature role as Hattie Caraway.

Though largely forgotten today, from 1932 to 1945, Hattie Wyatt Caraway was one of the most famous women in America. As the first woman elected to the U. S. Senate, she learned how to help desperate people in Arkansas during the Great Depression and World War II.  V. C. Kays was the founding father of the school that became Arkansas State University. After building it from the ground up, at times paying faculty from his own pocket, he forged a partnership with Caraway when the school was in danger of closing its doors. In this dramatization of their actual letters, which will be performed as readers theatre, “Dear Mrs. Caraway, Dear Mr. Kays” shows how their efforts succeeded.

Hendricks is director of alumni communications at Arkansas State University-Jonesboro. She is an award-winning writer whose previous play, “Miz Caraway and the Kingfish,” depicts the colorful 1932 election of Hattie Caraway with the help of Louisiana Sen. Huey Long. Its New Orleans production was held over for an extended run and nominated by the American Critics Association for 'Best Play Produced Outside New York.'  She is the recipient of the Susie Pryor Award for Arkansas Women's History, the Arkansas Governor’s Arts Award, and the White House Millennium Award for her writing. Hendricks says, "When I first started playing the role of Hattie back in the year 2000, I had to draw age lines and wrinkles on my face to portray a 54-year-old woman. Now I don’t have to anymore," she laughs.

Portraying Kays will be Michael B. Doyle, station manager of KASU-FM, the public radio service of Arkansas State University. Doyle has served on the radio-TV faculty at ASU since 1985, and his career has included announcing, copywriting, and sales positions at several radio stations. He is the on-air host for KASU's 'Music from the Isles,' featuring Celtic musicians. Doyle cites historic family ties to ASU: at a 1909 state meeting of the Farmers Union, his great-grandfather, J.D. Doyle of Walnut Ridge, seconded the motion introducing a resolution for the creation of four agricultural schools, including the one at Jonesboro which would become Arkansas State University.

Treasure trove
According to Hendricks, "Hattie Caraway has been part of my life as long as I can remember. My father knew her during World War II and shared stories about her as the first woman elected as a U. S. Senator, serving from 1932 to 1945. But I never truly understood the enormity of her achievement until entering public service myself with Texas Gov. Ann Richards more than a half century later. Even at the dawn of the 21st century, a woman in politics was not an easy role. Caraway may have been called 'Silent Hattie,' but I knew I wanted to help sing her praises."

Hendricks says, "I wrote a play based on her 1932 campaign with Huey Long called “Miz Caraway and the Kingfish,” but as the title suggests, it was as much about Long as Caraway’s achievement. Sadly, few of her papers have survived. Other than her journal written primarily in 1932, there was very little from more than a dozen years of her service in the Senate. Rumor had it that something about Caraway might be found in the many boxes of V. C. Kays papers donated to the Arkansas State University Archives by his son Buddy in 2001. I virtually moved in at the Archives for about a year, discovered a treasure trove of about a thousand documents, and transcribed more than 80 of their letters by hand."

Effective partnership
If Caraway is remembered at all, there is a widely-held belief that Caraway was quiet and ineffectual as a senator, derisively called '"Silent Hattie." Yet, according to Hendricks, "The Kays papers show that she and V. C. Kays formed a highly effective partnership during the Depression and World War II when he was A-State president, working to save the college when there was a real danger of it being forced to close its doors. There were also references to her work on behalf of other institutions in the state."

Hendricks continues, "It was a perilous time. A constitutional amendment was considered by the Arkansas General Assembly in 1932 to abolish the four district agricultural schools. It was proposed by a legislator who, it was said, planned to run for governor. His campaign platform almost derailed the education of tens of thousands of people. Fortunately, the proposal failed, but the poverty of the Depression caused a drop in revenue at A-State to the point that Kays was said to be paying faculty out of his own pocket. Then at the onset of World War II, many of the few remaining male students left for wartime service, further depleting funds. Since at least two colleges in Jonesboro had already failed, there was no guarantee A-State would remain open. Other Arkansas colleges faced similar circumstances."

Daily correspondence
The letters that Hendricks found in the archives show that Kays and Caraway corresponded often, sometimes daily, with Caraway lobbying New Deal agencies such as the Public Works Administration, Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and Department of War on behalf of the people back home in Arkansas. Along with her role in securing both the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) unit in the 1930s and an Army College Training Detachment at A-State during World War II, nine buildings were constructed on its campus with her help during the depths of the Depression.

Four of them are still heavily used today. They are the Art Annex, built in 1936; Math and Computer Science, built in 1936 as the Education Building; the College of Nursing and Health Professions, built in 1936 as the Student Commons Building, and the College of Business, built 1939 as the Science Building.

In discussing her research, Hendricks says, "To me the most valuable thing about the Kays/Caraway letters was seeing the personal thoughts of two people who knew and trusted each other. My favorite letter was handwritten by Caraway, combining her gratitude for Kays’ assistance in helping a destitute girl stay in college along with the request to 'tell Mrs. Kays I am not eating so much now and having less indigestion.'”

Book refutes 'Silent Hattie' myth
Hendricks has written a companion book, also called “Dear Mrs. Caraway, Dear Mr. Kays,” with the full text of the Kays/Caraway letters in which she refutes what she calls the 'Silent Hattie myth.' She cites a quote by Hattie Caraway which she says resonates strongly with many women to this day. "After an exchange with Arkansas's senior Senator, Joe T. Robinson, Hattie confided to her journal: 'Guess I said too much or too little. Never know.' Those words also express the thoughts of many women today in the field of politics."

Hendricks says that the Senate in the 1930s did not have a microphone. "A woman would have to shriek to be heard," she says. "Caraway was smart enough to know that was not the way to gain attention. She listened attentively to other senators' speeches, worked quietly, and considered the issues. She voted independently, according to her conscience and her constituents. She did some of her best work in Senate committees where she could speak in normal tones, proving herself to be pleasant, prepared, and politically astute. She not only gained the respect of her colleagues in this smaller forum but also managed to get things done. She knew about issues like flood control and agricultural problems because she'd seen them with her own eyes back home in Arkansas."

Hendricks says that on Caraway's last day in Congress after being defeated in her 1944 re-election bid, she was given a remarkable standing ovation in the Senate. Says Hendricks, "She also received what was probably intended as a compliment: 'Mrs. Caraway is the kind of woman senator that men senators prefer.' Though she made only a few speeches in the Senate, perhaps she asked herself if desperate, hungry people back home in Arkansas would benefit more from jobs, food and education, or by making speeches about their troubles."

Hendricks says she is particularly gratified that “Dear Mrs. Caraway, Dear Mr. Kays” will be presented as part of the ASU Centennial. "This is the time to celebrate the people who brought us to where we are today as a university. Kays and Caraway both believed strongly in education as they way out of poverty for the people of our state. Who knows how many people went on to better lives for themselves, their families, and their descendants because of the efforts by Kays and Caraway? They did whatever they could to remedy a bad situation. Kays was said to be paying faculty members out of his own pocket during the Depression. Mike Doyle wonderfully portrays him with authority and humanity as well as a lot of humor.    "I was told by a former A-State president that ASU did not receive any state monies for buildings on campus until the Reng administration, which ran from 1951-1975. Hattie secured federal funds in the 1930s to construct nine buildings, and some are still used today. I doubt many of the people who use those buildings today have any idea how they came about and how those buildings have contributed to our success. I hope “Dear Mrs. Caraway, Dear Mr. Kays” will help shed some light on these two remarkable people from our past."

The Centennial Celebration Finale program on Sunday will also include a new musical composition titled “Architects of Fate,” written especially for the Centennial by ASU music professor Dr. Tom O' Connor. The Centennial Celebration Finale will be held at Fowler Center, 201 Olympic Drive, Jonesboro, beginning at 2 p.m. Admission is free, but everyone must have a ticket to attend; a limited number are still available through the Centennial Celebration office .For tickets or more information, contact the Centennial Celebration office at 870-972-2803.

Photo: Dr. Nancy Hendricks as Sen. Hattie Caraway, courtesy of Dr. Nancy Hendricks.
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