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Walter Roy Sturgis (1901–1976)

Walter Roy Sturgis was a self-made multi-millionaire from southern Arkansas whose fortune continues to benefit the state and beyond through philanthropic organizations dedicated to managing the wealth amassed by Sturgis and his wife, Christine.

Roy Sturgis was born in Cleveland County, Arkansas, between Kingsland and Hebron on March 6, 1901, to William A. Sturgis, who was a farmer, and Nancy Virginia Bingham Sturgis, a homemaker. Sturgis had nine siblings.

Scarce biographical information exists about Sturgis, and some of what has been written appears not to be entirely accurate. For example, Sturgis reportedly dropped out of school after the tenth grade and served in the U.S. Navy during World War I. While Sturgis’s education at the Good Hope School (also known as the Green Goose School) in Cleveland County may well have been incomplete, it seems unlikely that he served in World War I, as he would have been sixteen years old at the time the Selective Service Act was implemented in 1917. Several of his brothers registered for the draft during World War I in Arkansas, but no extant draft card has been located for Walter Roy Sturgis. Sturgis also indicated on the 1930 federal census that he was not a veteran.

By the beginning of the 1930s, Sturgis was living in Missouri Township in Nevada County and working in the Arkansas timber industry. The 1930 federal census records Sturgis living independently and lists his occupation as manager of a sawmill, which may have been located at Carthage (Dallas County). Sturgis eventually owned or had controlling interest in a number of sawmills and flooring mills around Arkansas, including mills at Malvern (Hot Spring County), Sparkman (Dallas County), and Pine Bluff (Jefferson County).

On June 6, 1933, Sturgis married Francis Christine Johns in Miller County, Arkansas. Their marriage license shows Roy Sturgis as a resident of Prescott (Nevada County) and Christine as a resident of Bixby, Oklahoma. Christine Johns Sturgis was born Christine Coffee on August 25, 1903, probably in Texas. In the early years of their marriage, the couple lived in Camden (Ouachita County), where Roy Sturgis owned an ice company. By the 1940s, as Sturgis grew wealthier from investments in land and timber, as well from interests in gas, oil, and mineral leases, the couple purchased a residence in Dallas, Texas. The Sturgises maintained residences in both Arkansas and Texas.

Sturgis was an avid horse-racing enthusiast and thoroughbred owner. One of his horses, Mr. Brick, named for friend and business associate R. A. “Brick” Lile, ran in numerous races and placed sixth in the 1964 Kentucky Derby.

Roy Sturgis died in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on January 1, 1976. Roy and Christine Sturgis had been married for almost forty-three years at the time of his death. Christine Sturgis died in Malvern on April 25, 1981. Both are buried in the Sparkman Cemetery in Dallas County.

The Sturgises had no children. Their estate, worth over $40 million at the time of Christine’s death, was divided between two charitable trusts that bear their names. The estate of Roy Sturgis funds the Roy and Christine Sturgis Charitable and Educational Trust, which is based in Little Rock; the significantly larger estate of Christine Sturgis funds the Roy and Christine Sturgis Charitable Trust, operated by the Bank of America in Dallas, Texas. The Arkansas trust’s work has focused on funding grants for a wide range of nonprofits, in particular educational institutions, food charities, religious organizations, libraries, museums, and other cultural entities. In the first thirty-five years of the trust’s existence, trustees awarded over $19.9 million to 206 entities statewide. The Dallas-based trust, which operates in both Arkansas and Texas, has funded numerous high-profile projects in Arkansas, including the Sturgis Veterans Plaza at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, the Sturgis Fellowship Program of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), the renovation of Choctaw Station (which houses the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service), and a building on the campus of the Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock.

For additional information:
Cleveland County Historical & Genealogical Society, Schools of Cleveland County, Arkansas: From Fifty-Seven to Two. N.p.: 2010.

Lisenby, Doris Mitchell. Taproots in Fertile Soil. Arkadelphia, AR: Autumn Years Ministries, 1993.

“Millionaire’s Estate Makes Lives of Arkansans Richer.” Arkansas Gazette, June 17 1991, pp. 1A, 5A.

Obituary of Christine Johns Sturgis. Arkansas Gazette, April 26, 1981, p. 18A.

Obituary of Roy Sturgis. Arkansas Gazette, January 3, 1976, p. 9B.

Roy and Christine Sturgis Charitable and Educational Trust Records, Little Rock, Arkansas. Privately held.

Lisa Speer
Arkansas State Archives

Last Updated 5/30/2017

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