John Lipton’s influence on public policy in Arkansas can be seen and felt all over the state.
Elected to 12 consecutive terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives, Lipton is a former Speaker of the House and was once one of the most powerful members of the General Assembly. He is a former chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission, friend and confidante of governors, senators and a President of the United States.
It was Lipton who brought the Southeast Arkansas Community-Based Education Center and the Southeast Arkansas Human Development Center to Warren. It was Lipton who was instrumental in the construction of a bridge over Moro Bay that bears his name. It was Lipton who helped secure federal highway designations for U.S. 278 and U.S. 63 as well as the continuation of Interstate 530 south to eventually serve as a connector to Interstate 69.
And it was Lipton, along with Rodney Slater, the late Jerry Bookout, and then-Governor Bill Clinton, who turned a four-hour meeting at the Capitol Hotel in Little Rock into the creation of the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship Program.
For his accomplishments in public service, Lipton has been named the 51st Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Lipton will be honored at UAM’s commencement exercises this Friday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at Steelman Fieldhouse.
“I can think of no one who better exemplifies what it means to be a distinguished alumnus,” says UAM Chancellor Jack Lassiter. “John Lipton has given so much of his life to public service and Arkansas is a better place thanks to that service.”
The award is the third bestowed on Lipton by his alma mater and when Lassiter called to tell him about the latest honor, Lipton wondered if someone had made a mistake. “I said, Jack, I’ve already got two awards from UAM,” Lipton says. “He said, you don’t have this one.”
The walls of both Lipton’s home and office in Warren are covered with awards and plaques, a testament to more than 40 years of public service. Lipton has spent his entire life in the small Bradley County town known for producing what locals insist are the world’s best-tasting tomatoes and outstanding high school football teams.
Lipton was a part of the Warren Lumberjack football legacy playing alongside future UAM stars Charley Fred Dearman and John Wayne Gibson. He graduated from Warren High in 1954 and initially attended Arkansas Tech, hoping to play basketball for the Wonder Boys. But his primary interest was having a good time.
“I was a party boy and it caught up with me,” Lipton admits, smiling at the memory. Lipton was injured early in his first semester at Tech, and when Dearman, his high school buddy, decided to leave Russellville and head to Arkansas A&M, Lipton wanted to follow. His father wouldn’t let him.
“I called Dad and told him Charley Fred was transferring to A&M and I said I think I’d like to come back too,” Lipton says. “I’ll never forget what he said. He asked me, ‘What did you tell those folks?’ I said I told them I would stay for the rest of the year and he said that’s what you’re going to do. I didn’t argue with my Dad.”
Lipton got a reprieve at the end of his freshman year, but not without another object lesson from his father, who made him work six months on the night shift at a local sawmill. “He got my attention,” Lipton remembers. “He said you get your act together and I’ll help you go back to college.”
Lipton eventually enrolled at what was then Arkansas A&M and graduated in 1959 with a degree in business after what he calls a less than stellar academic career. Along the way he met his future wife, JeNelle, at a Warren skating rink and the two were married on September 27, 1957. When asked if it was love at first sight, Lipton smiles and says “pretty close.”
Lipton worked briefly for International Paper but had always wanted to be his own boss so he returned to A&M with plans to become a doctor, enrolling in a heavy course load of biology and chemistry classes. His primary instructor was Dr. Wilburn C. Hobgood, who had been at the school since 1931 and was regarded as one of the toughest professors on campus.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy,” says Lipton. “They were scared of him, but my transcript under him was a lot better than it was before.”
Lipton’s plans got sidetracked when his family began to grow and he realized he couldn’t support a wife and children for the time it would take to complete medical school. He considered teaching but was discouraged by the earning potential and, after another short stint at International Paper, followed his dream to go into business for himself.
With the help and encouragement of his father-in-law, J. J. Neal, Lipton started an LP gas company, then added a wholesale oil distributorship, both highly successful.
In 1966, Lipton worked for David Pryor’s first successful congressional campaign and after Pryor was elected, he encouraged Lipton to consider running for the Arkansas House of Representatives.
Lipton won a three-man Democratic primary in 1968 without a run-off, at the time tantamount to a general election, and was sworn in to office in January 1969. Over the next 24 years, Lipton served the House as chair of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, co-chair of the Joint Performance Review Committee, was selected to receive the Outstanding Legislator Award in 1990, and in 1991, was elected by his colleagues to a two-year term as Speaker of the House for the 78th General Assembly, which he calls the highlight of his 24 years at the Capitol.
Lipton’s final term in the House was a landmark session that included help for rural hospitals, creation of the Academic Challenge program, the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority, the largest highway program in the state’s history, and massive education reform. That session is immortalized at the Capitol with a bronze plaque calling it “The Education Session.”
A passionate advocate for vocational-technical education, Lipton was appointed to a three-year term on the 21-member National Advisory Council in Vocational Education by President Carter in 1979.
By early January 1993, Bill Clinton was President-elect and Lipton was starting his final year in the legislature. “I was burned out,” he says. “I wasn’t term-limited. I could still go back if I wanted to, but I don’t,” he quickly adds.
When Clinton met with Lipton shortly before going to Washington, he had already named Lipton and Bookout as the co-chairs of the Democratic Leadership Conference, a conservative to moderate alternative to the liberal Democratic National Conference. “President Clinton asked me what I wanted to do once my term in the House was over,” Lipton remembers. “I said I didn’t want to leave Arkansas and I thought the best way to help my part of the state would be on the highway commission. There was a position coming open and he said if you want it, it’s yours.”
Lipton was officially appointed to the commission by Clinton’s successor as Governor, Jim Guy Tucker, in 1993. He served 10 years, including two as chair.
At 77 with three children and five grandchildren, Lipton still maintains a schedule that might exhaust someone 20 years younger. He is the current chair of the Southeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Authority and a member of the Southeast Arkansas Cornerstone Coalition. Through the years, he has served on more boards and commissions than he can keep track of and is still actively involved in shaping public policy, serving as a liaison between the Governor’s office and the legislature at the just-completed session. He was at the Capitol by 6 a.m., grading bills at 7:00, then off to committee meetings and by 1:30, was sitting at his designated seat at the back of the Senate chamber.
The thought of slowing down never seems to occur to him. “It’s just not in my nature,” Lipton says. “I don’t think it was meant to be that way. I think the good Lord will call me home when He’s ready for me. Until he does, and I’m able, I’m going to be out there, hopefully making some form of contribution.”
Whatever that contribution is, Arkansas will be better for it.