Ruth Hawkins of Jonesboro is best known around the state for her strong advocacy for historic preservation and heritage tourism. As she is quick to point out, it is not that she is enamored of old buildings; rather, it is the heritage they represent and how they can be utilized to tell the stories of Arkansas to the rest of the world.
Hawkins has been at Arkansas State University since 1978, with most of her early years there as Vice President for Institutional Advancement. While traveling throughout the region to raise funds and friends for the university, this St. Louis native fell in love with the Arkansas Delta and its rich heritage. Looking for ways to merge needs of the region with programs and opportunities offered by the university, her first heritage project was raising funds to acquire and restore property in Piggott, Arkansas, that once belonged to Paul and Mary Pfeiffer. The Pfeiffers’ son-in-law, legendary author Ernest Hemingway, was a frequent visitor and wrote portions of A Farewell to Arms in their barn. The project opened in 1999 as the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center and led to Hawkins’s decision to devote full-time to preserving the heritage of the Arkansas Delta. The project also led to the publication of her book, Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage, which is the only biographical work that focuses on Hemingway’s relationship with the Pfeiffer family.
Under her leadership, the Arkansas State University Heritage Sites program now has grown to include the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, the Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village, and the Historic Dyess Colony: Johnny Cash Boyhood Home. In addition to serving as economic catalysts in the rural communities where they are located, these sites provide research and field experiences for students in A-State Heritage Studies Ph.D. program, which Hawkins helped launch. She also serves as Executive Director of Arkansas Delta Byways, Inc., a tourism promotion association serving 15 counties in Eastern Arkansas. She led the efforts to develop two National Scenic Byways, the Crowley’s Ridge Parkway and the Arkansas segment of The Great River Road, and serves as a technical advisor to the Mississippi River Parkway Commission. She has the unique distinction of serving as chairman for both the 75th Anniversary Celebration and the Centennial Celebration for Arkansas State University.
Her work has been recognized through numerous state and national preservation awards, including the Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement in preservation, a Preservation Honors Award through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Lifetime Achievement Award through the Arkansas Historical Association, the Peg Newton Smith Lifetime Achievement Award through the Arkansas Museums Association, and induction into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame. Hawkins has served on numerous boards and commissions and is a member of the International Women’s Forum of Arkansas and the Jonesboro Rotary Club.