In Power Couples, Arkansas Money & Politics will introduce you to some of the most interesting and influential pairs in the state of Arkansas. Rep. Reginald and Willie Murdock are our next couple in this series. Click here to read about more Power Couples. To nominate a #PowerCouple, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Any life lived long and well yields a blend of the joyful and the sorrowful, of family celebrations and professional setbacks. Rep. Reginald and Willie Murdock’s life together has been no different. The duo have attained positions of leadership and prominence in their respective fields and lived through unspeakable tragedy. They’ve led many to seek a better life, yet know that there are many more to reach.
“I don’t know that I’m ever satisfied,” Reginald said. “I think that relatively speaking we’re doing well [as a state], we’re moving ahead. But we’ve got work to do.”
Reginald was born in Indiana and moved to Marianna, Arkansas in middle school. Willie Smith, named after her grandfather, was one of his classmates. They grew up together in the small Delta community, population about 4,000.
“We’ve known each other since sixth grade,” Reginald said. “I’ve known her and admired her forever. Finally in our senior year, I got the nerve to approach her. She felt sorry for me.”
Willie confessed to reservations about getting involved with Reginald, a natural athlete who excelled in football, basketball and track. It’s not that she didn’t like sports – in fact, she’s a voracious fan to this day – but she valued brains more than brawn in her personal relationships.
“When he started talking like he really had some potential and a lot of intellect, then I started to deal with him,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t just see him from that athletic point of view, I actually saw him as, ‘Oh, he can think! He’s smart. Let me try to keep him.'”
The two attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville together where Willie majored in radio, television and film and political science with an eye on becoming a lawyer and Reginald studied industrial engineering. Their relationship deepened as they came to appreciate the profound differences in their personalities.
“I’m kind of a Type-A guy; I’m probably a little more risky,” Reginald said. “I left a pretty good job with the Highway Department to start my own business and she’s more conservative in terms of that. She’s worked with schools and in the public sector with the guaranteed check. I wanted to go out and develop the check.”
Family has been a driving force in the Murdocks’ lives and their definition of family is a broad one. In addition to their two biological children, their home welcomed four non-biological youngsters whom they raised. Even today, it’s not unusual to find a gaggle of local kids clamoring to spend time at the house.
“Little kids, we have a houseful of kids every Sunday afternoon,” Willie said. “And if we were at home during the week, we would have a houseful of kids at our house. They love being at our house.”
The two cemented their standing in the community by getting involved, she in the school system and he in public service. Reginald served on the Lee County School Board prior to running for the state legislature in 2004. That bid failed, but another run in 2010 earned him a seat in the House serving District 52 (now District 48) representing parts of Lee and St. Francis counties.
“I’ve always been involved in the community,” he said. “Elected office came about through the local constituency asking that I be a part of that. That’s where it started, from the demand of the people.”
Willie had no intention of getting into education when she left for college, let alone of running her hometown school district. But by the time she’d earned her undergraduate degree, she found herself called to that vocation. She completed graduate work at Arkansas State and got to work improving the quality of education for students of the district. Her 20-plus years there culminated with serving as Lee County School District superintendent.
Today, she leads Career Pathways, a program of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education that helps train adults for meaningful careers, which is garnering national attention.
“I’m a first-generation college graduate. For me, [Career Pathways] is just part of the dream and the journey I’ve always wanted to be on, which is helping more people,” she said.
“When I was superintendent, which was a five-year challenge, it was a labor of love because I love my community, I love working with students, I love working with adults. So, this is like full-circle to help more low-income families and trying to change that intergenerational poverty.”
Despite each holding positions that run them headlong at thorny societal challenges, nothing in the Murdocks’ professional lives proved as difficult as the loss of their 16-year-old son. Reginald Jr. died suddenly nine years ago from a misdiagnosed infection.
“It was very traumatic, still is,” Reginald said. “The way I look at my children, God entrusts us for a period of time to look over his precious jewels. And we accepted that God, at the time that he chose, returned him to sender, if you will.”
In a life ordained to tackle big issues, success is often measured in small wins, one day at a time. It’s an apt description of the Murdocks, grounded as they are in their fundamental and unshakable belief in the Almighty, in each other and the potential of people.
“There’s a lot of complex things that [the legislature] deals with that I try to simplify and articulate to my constituency,” Reginald said. “So that they understand, first of all, that they have someone up here to help them. And then, to have the courage to go and do it.”