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James Albert (Jim) Gaston (1941–2015)

Jim Gaston was a renowned Arkansas businessman, sportsman, and philanthropist whose legacy includes operating Gaston’s White River Resort, being an advocate for tourism and conservation in the state, and acting as a champion of education. His generosity contributed to significant growth at Arkansas State University–Mountain Home (ASUMH).

James (Jim) Albert Gaston was born on December 18, 1941, to Albert (Al) Gaston and Iola Cosey Gaston in Herrin, Illinois. After moving to Arkansas, Al Gaston created Gaston’s White River Resort at Lakeview (Baxter County) in 1958. In 1961, at age twenty, Jim Gaston inherited the property, which at the time consisted of twenty acres, six small cottages, and six boats.

Gaston expanded the operation significantly, until it covered 400 acres of land with two miles of river frontage. The complex includes seventy boats, seventy-nine cottages, and a 3,200-foot airstrip, as well as a nationally famous restaurant. Gaston’s White River Resort operates a conference lodge that seats up to 125. There is also a duck pond, game room, gift shop, playground, private club, swimming pool, and tennis court, along with two nature trails. The resort has been recognized nationally via radio, magazines, newspapers, and television programs.

Gaston was an early advocate of tourism as an economic engine for the state of Arkansas, as well as a champion of conservation. He was an early supporter of politician Dale Bumpers, who became a lifelong friend. After Bumpers was elected governor of Arkansas in 1970, Gaston was the first person appointed by Bumpers to the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Commission. Gaston served on the commission for many years, including as the group’s president, before being named commissioner emeritus and a lifetime member of the commission. In addition, Gaston served as president of the Arkansas Tourism Development Foundation and president of Arkansas Hospitality Association.

He married Jill Glenn in 1986, and they had one son.

Among Gaston’s many honors are being named Arkansas Tourism Man of the Year in 1985, elected to the Arkansas Outdoors Hall of Fame in 1999, and recognized as Business Executive of the Year by Arkansas Business in 2010. In 2006, the James A. Gaston Visitor Center at the Bull Shoals-White River State Park, which spans over 700 acres in Baxter and Marion counties, was named for him. The $4.7 million complex covers more than 15,000 square feet and includes the Environmental Education Learning Center. The facility, which rises above Bull Shoals Dam, serves as a learning center that attracts between 75,000 to 90,000 visitors from around the world each year. Some of its features include a display about the history of the White River and Bull Shoals Lake as well as the creation of Arkansas’s Bull Shoals Dam, the fifth-largest dam in the United States.

The Gastons’ philanthropic efforts involved sponsoring several projects at ASUMH, including the Gaston Lobby in Roller Hall, and endowing the Great Hall in the Vada Sheid Community Development Center in honor of former Arkansas governor and senator Dale Bumpers. They also endowed the Gaston Lecture Series at the university, which brings in noted speakers each year.

Gaston also became an accomplished outdoor photographer, publishing An Ozark Perspective: Photos by Jim Gaston, a collection of his work, in 2013. He donated a large digital photo archive to ASUMH, with proceeds from sales of the book benefitting the school’s scholarship fund.

Jim Gaston died on July 13, 2015. At the time of his death, he was to be honored with the Legacy Award from the Arkansas Outdoors Hall of Fame, a project of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, because of the key role he played in establishing trout fishing in Arkansas. Former Arkansas governor Mike Beebe said of him: “Jim Gaston was known regionally and nationally for a lifetime of leadership in Arkansas’s travel and tourism industry.”

For additional information:
Gaston, Jim. An Ozark Perspective: Photos by Jim Gaston. Jonesboro: Arkansas State University, 2013.

Gaston’s White River Resort. http://www.gastons.com/index.php (accessed August 23, 2016).

Schwers, Kaitlyn. “Jim Gaston: ‘He’ll Never Be Forgotten.’” Baxter Bulletin, July 13, 2015. Online at http://www.baxterbulletin.com/story/news/local/2015/07/13/remembering-jim-gaston/30111595/ (accessed August 23, 2016).

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society

Last Updated 8/26/2016

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