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Bob Cowley Riley was a politician and educator who overcame debilitating World War II injuries to serve with distinction in both arenas. His career in state and local politics spanned four decades and culminated in two terms as lieutenant governor (1971–1975) and eleven days as governor (1975). He taught social sciences at Little Rock University (now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock) and Ouachita Baptist University (OBU). On the political stump and in the classroom, Riley was a legendary raconteur. A black patch covering his blinded left eye was his trademark.
Bob Riley was born on September 18, 1924, in Little Rock (Pulaski County), the son of Columbus Allen and Winnie (Craig) Riley. He attended Pulaski County Rural School and Little Rock High School. His early political involvement included a session as a page for the Arkansas Legislature in 1937. In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he dropped out of high school to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps.
In World War II, Riley served in the Pacific Theater for two years. On July 21, 1944, Corporal Riley led a rifle squad assault on a Japanese machine gun emplacement on Guam that nearly cost him his life. His wounds kept him hospitalized for more than a year and left him with severely impaired vision, battered limbs, and constant pain.
In 1945, Riley enrolled at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), where he earned his BA (1950), MA (1951), and Ed.D. (1957). While pursuing his education, he was active in Democratic Party politics. He won two terms in the state House of Representatives (1947–1951), representing Pulaski County (which he was able to do while living in Fayetteville, possibly because of extraordinary deference given veterans or arrangements he made for extended absences, given that the Legislature meets only every other year). An unsuccessful 1950 campaign for a seat in the state Senate advanced as far as the run-off primary. He began working as an insurance broker in 1951 before finding his calling in college teaching.
Riley taught a wide variety of courses in economics and political science at Little Rock University from 1951 to 1955. He married Claudia Zimmerman in 1956, and their daughter, Megen, was born in 1959. In 1957, Riley accepted a position as associate professor of history and political science at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia (Clark County). Under his leadership, political science became a separate department the next year. He chaired the department for the rest of his tenure there. A charismatic and provocative teacher, he was promoted to full professor in 1958 and chaired the social science division from 1960 to 1974.
Riley’s passion for politics manifested itself in extensive involvement in the Arkadelphia community in the 1960s. Elected to the city council in 1960, he held office until 1967, serving as mayor the last two years. He continued to participate in state party politics, attending the 1968 Democratic National Convention as a delegate.
In 1970, Riley was elected lieutenant governor, defeating Republican Sterling R. Cockrill after a three-man Democratic primary contest that went to a run-off election. Reelected in 1972 (running unopposed in the primary and then defeating Republican Ken Coon), he presided over the Senate. In 1974, Riley sought the Democratic nomination for governor. Plagued by ill health, he finished third in the primary election won by David Pryor.
In his final days as an elected official, Riley served as governor January 3–14, 1975. The incumbent, Dale Bumpers, had been elected to the U.S. Senate the previous November, and his term began shortly before his gubernatorial term ended, so he resigned. Riley remained at the helm until Pryor’s inauguration. His brief, uneventful tenure capped a noteworthy political career.
Riley returned home to Arkadelphia, where he continued to teach at OBU until failing health forced his retirement in 1980. He died on February 16, 1994, of congestive heart failure and is buried at Rest Haven Memorial Gardens in Arkadelphia.
For additional information:Bass, Harold F., and Daniel R. Grant. “In Memoriam: Bob Cowley Riley.” PS: Political Science and Politics 27 (June 1994): 287–288.
Jordan, Wayne. “Bob Cowley Riley dies of heart failure.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. February 17, 1994, pp. 1B, 7B.
“Riley Lived a Life of Honor, Distinction.” Arkadelphia Daily Siftings Herald. February 24, 1994, p. 4.
Harold F. BassOuachita Baptist University
Last Updated 6/15/2009
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