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John Garrett Whiteside (1885–1947)

John Garrett Whiteside was a congressional secretary who served many of Arkansas’s delegation of U.S. representatives and senators from 1907 through 1947. In the era when ninety-six senators represented the forty-eight states, he was often called “the ninety-seventh senator.” In a twist of history, he also participated in the declaration of both world wars.

Garrett Whiteside was born in 1885 in Nashville (Howard County). Whiteside’s father, John Elkanah Whiteside, was a clerk in Robert Burns’s store at Moscow (Nevada County). Whiteside served for a time as a court reporter, but little is known of his early life until he arrived in Washington DC on March 4, 1907, as secretary to Representative Ben Cravens of Fort Smith (Sebastian County), from Arkansas’s Fourth Congressional District.

Whiteside married Pearl Biggs of Prescott (Nevada County) in 1908. He remained at the nation’s capitol in continuous service for four decades, subsequently becoming secretary to Rep. Otis Wingo of De Queen (Sevier County), who represented Arkansas’s Fourth District. Whiteside served as Wingo’s secretary until 1921. He then became secretary to Senator Thaddeus Caraway of Jonesboro (Craighead County), who served in the Senate from 1921 until his sudden death in 1931. When Caraway’s wife, Hattie Caraway, took office in place of her late husband in 1931, later becoming the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate, Whiteside served as her congressional secretary, helping her maneuver the many challenges she faced.

Whiteside was a well-recognized and respected person in the halls of Congress. The Congressional Record of April 21, 1941, includes a tribute by Rep. Fadjo Cravens of Fort Smith, representing Arkansas’s Fourth District: “Quiet, retiring, unassuming, Garrett Whiteside probably knows and is known by more people in the Capitol and congressional offices than any other person. Those places have been his workshop for 34 years. There he has seen history made, and he has helped make it.”

Part of that history came when Whiteside was serving as clerk of the Committee on Enrolled Bills for the House of Representatives in 1917. On April 6 of that year, President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress, asking for a declaration of war against Germany and its allies. That evening, Whiteside was approached in his office by Rep. Henry D. Flood of Virginia, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sir Cecil Rice, British ambassador to the United States. When Whiteside was asked if he knew how to use a typewriter, he said that he could, by virtue of having served early in his career as a court reporter. Flood dictated as Whiteside typed the declaration of America’s entry into World War I.

On December 8, 1941, Whiteside, serving as clerk of the Senate Committee on Enrolled Bills, was responsible for certifying the declaration that a state of war existed between the United States against the Axis powers. Both houses of Congress approved the declaration of war in the record time of thirty-three minutes. Whiteside was responsible for presenting that declaration for the signatures of Sam Rayburn of Texas, speaker of the House of Representatives, and Franklin Roosevelt, president of the United States. When Whiteside delivered the declaration of war to the White House for the president’s signature, Roosevelt reportedly said to him, “It is remarkable that you should have handled both resolutions which commit this country to the greatest wars in history.”

In a more peaceful bit of history, Whiteside also delivered the United Nations Charter to the White House in July 1945, along with the Senate ratification of America’s participation in that organization.

Upon Hattie Caraway’s departure from the Senate in 1945, Whiteside was appointed Clerk of Enrolled Bills in the office of the Secretary of the Senate. In 1947, according to the New York Times, “he was retired March 1 as the result of the reorganization by the Republicans.” After his retirement, Whiteside continued writing a column on current events for the Arkansas Democrat. He had also contributed to the Arkansas Historical Quarterly’s first year of publication in 1942.

On July 2, 1947, Whiteside was listening to a baseball game on the radio at his home in Washington DC when he suffered a heart attack, dying before a doctor could arrive. His passing was cited prominently in a lengthy obituary with a photo in the New York Times. It carried the subhead, “Secretary Handled Detailed Work on Last 2 War Declarations—Called ‘97th Senator.’” According to the Times obituary, he was survived by his wife, Pearl; a daughter, Mrs. A. S. Gardiner Jr., and three grandchildren. In Nashville, Garrett Whiteside Hall stands as the remains of the old Nashville High School complex built in the 1930s. Used for recreational and cultural events, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.

For additional information:
“J. Whiteside Dies; Aide to Congress.” New York Times. July 4, 1947, p. 13.

Whiteside, Garrett. “‘Watching Washington’ for Thirty-Five Years.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 1 (September 1942): 235–243.

Nancy Hendricks
Arkansas State University

Last Updated 12/16/2014

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