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Southern Discomfort : Orval Faubus gained notoriety in 1957 when he tried to stop school integration in Arkansas. He still wants to soften history's view of him.

September 15, 1992|W. HAMPTON SIDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

But fate turned on Faubus, and he suffered a string of misfortunes that would have broken Job: In 1969, Alta, his wife of 37 years, divorced him, citing "abuse and consistent neglect." In 1976, his only son, Farrell, committed suicide by drug overdose. He was 37. In 1983, Faubus' second wife, Beth, was murdered in Houston, where the couple lived for a time.

Meanwhile, Faubus' finances unraveled. To help pay the bills, he turned the Big House into a makeshift museum and gave tours for $1.25 a head. After serving as the director of an amusement park called Dogpatch U.S.A., Faubus took a job as a bank teller for a $5,000 annual salary.

For a few lonely years, he spent most of his time driving around the state promoting his books and occasionally offering autographs for spare cash.

As if these trials weren't enough, his health has repeatedly failed him. He has fought cancer and heart troubles and has undergone surgery 12 times.

But Faubus never lost the political bug. In 1970 and 1974, he made impressive but unsuccessful comeback bids for the governorship. After getting trounced by Clinton in the 1986 Democratic primary, he finally threw in the towel, calling himself "a has-been."

In 1989, he sold the Big House and left the Ozarks. "That was more house than I ever bargained for," he chuckles. "I had learned to love every foot of it. But I had to sell it to pay off the bankers. I didn't have anything left, but I can now write on my tombstone: 'Orval Faubus--His Debts Were Paid.' "

*

Today, Faubus lives in a comfortable although decidedly smaller house in the college town of Conway, half an hour's drive north of Little Rock, with his third wife, Jan, a 49-year-old schoolteacher.

The first image that greets visitors is an enormous oil portrait of the young governor from the glory days of his Administration, his ruddy visage beaming down from the top of the stairs. The contrast between the rumpled old man at the door and the young executive looming behind him is striking and somehow desperately sad.

Political memorabilia clutters the house. In his downstairs office are photographs of the governor pictured alongside John F. Kennedy and Harry S. Truman and a framed copy of his Time magazine cover from 1957.

Faubus has crow's feet around his eyes and a long hook nose that constantly drips. His glum expression brightens once he starts talking.

As he recounts boyhood tales, he speaks softly, almost reverently, in an engaging hillbilly brogue flecked with King James English. He still is full of nervous energy, constantly tapping his foot, drumming his fleshy fingers on the arm of his chair.

Last year, Faubus was found to have prostate cancer and given 37 treatments of radiation therapy. Now it's his wife's health that concerns him most: Jan recently developed breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy after a mastectomy.

He writes a column for a trucking newspaper and organizes reunions for his Army division from World War II. Occasionally, he gives political speeches. He delights in getting a rise out of the press by taking unpredictable stands. In 1988, for example, he endorsed Jesse Jackson for President.

Controversy has pursued him even in retirement. Recently he was honored with a bust in the rotunda of the state Capitol, despite the strident objections of black opponents.

He has written five books, ranging from a memoir of his service in Patton's Third Army to a eulogy for his many dogs. His two-volume autobiography, "Down From the Hills," has been labeled a "revisionist history" by critics. He thinks he has one more book in him, a celebration of Ozarks culture.

Faubus remains a close observer of the political scene, and his opinions are still sought. He'll hold forth on any topic, especially if you agree to buy one of his books.

Affirmative action: "It's just as unfair as it can be."

The federal government: "The trend toward the federal usurpation of the states is continuous and inevitable and will result in a dictatorship of the American Caesars."

Clinton's tenure as governor: "He hasn't minded the store. And he raised the state sales tax by 1.5 percentage points." Faubus pauses, and the old mountain populist smolders from within. "That's your ordinary people he's hurting."

One topic he won't discuss in detail is Clinton's bid for the presidency.

"We've always had people in Arkansas who were capable of being President," he says. "People like William Fulbright, John McClellan, Wilbur Mills. But the timing wasn't right. Winning in politics is just like fording a stream. You don't know when it's going to flood, when it's going to flow swift or when it's going to grow still. See, it all depends on your timing."

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It was timing, more than anything else, that accounted for Faubus' inability to stage a comeback in Arkansas politics. "The times changed on him," says Paul Greenberg, the conservative editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "And while he was a shrewd politician, he wasn't able to change fast enough."

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