Gene Wirges, who fought the Conway County political machine as a Morrilton newspaperman in the 1960s, died Thursday at 86.
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas has a rich account of Wirges’ battle — sometimes literally bruising — with Sheriff Marlin Hawkins’ corrupt machine. His crusading for reform brought an important ally in the region eventually, Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller. Said the encyclopedia:
Wirges, along with his wife, Betty, allied themselves with the forces of reform at serious personal risk. Principally as editor of the Morrilton Democrat, as well as other local papers, Wirges led a campaign for better government and honest elections, which resulted in lawsuits, criminal prosecution, physical altercations, and—allegedly—a contract on his life. His opponent and chief nemesis, Hawkins, vehemently denied being involved in such activities.
Little Rock Funeral Home will be handling arrangements.
A family-prepared obituary from his daughter Shelly Culbertson follows on the jump.
Nationally recognized Arkansas publisher, editor and author Gene Wirges died Thursday, June 19, 2014, at the age of 86. He was the recipient of the prestigious Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for Courage in Journalism in 1962 and renowned as a crusading newspaperman fighting corruption in government at the local, state, and national level.
Wirges and his wife, Betty Carter Wirges, who preceded him in death, bought a small-town newspaper in Morrilton in 1957 and soon thereafter were enlisted by local residents who begged the Wirges’ to help them reveal the truth about the political situation in Conway County.
Their published reports on political and election irregularities began with a controversial school board election and continued all the way to the state level and the administration of Governor Orville Faubus, most notably taking on the long-established political machine of Conway County Sheriff Marlin Hawkins.
The corruption revealed by the small weekly newspaper eventually made national headlines and had a lasting impact on the political landscape of the state of Arkansas.
During the legal struggles in Conway County, the embattled Morrilton Democrat and its determined editor and publisher were profiled in several national magazines including The Atlantic Monthly, TIME Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. The situation at one time became so volatile that federal marshals were dispatched to monitor local elections, and bodyguards were employed to protect Wirges. During the eventful years when Wirges was challenging the existing political structure, he endured a beating on a downtown street by an enraged tax assessor, was jailed, and had his newspaper boycotted. It was alleged, but never proven, that a contract was at one time issued for the murder of Wirges.
A friendship with former governor Winthrop Rockefeller, who made his home on Petit Jean Mountain and was interested in Morrilton, and Rockefeller’s belief that Wirges was engaged in an important and worthwhile endeavor, brought the two men together and Rockefeller is believed to have helped enable Wirges to continue to publish his newspaper after his own savings were exhausted.
Prior to publishing the Morrilton Democrat, the Perry County News, and several other weekly newspapers, Wirges worked at the former Arkansas Gazette. His father, Joseph “Joe Gazette” Wirges, was a well-known prize -winning police and crime reporter for the Gazette.
Wirges authored a book, “Conflict of Interests – The Gene Wirges Story” in 1992. Additional books written on the subject have been published by several authors.