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She Never Expected to Be There: Gay White (First Lady of Arkansas, 1981-1983)

Department of Arkansas Heritage - Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Life brought Gay Daniels far from being a self-described “Navy Brat” in Oakland, Calif., to the pinnacle of prominence as Gay White, First Lady of Arkansas.

First Lady Gay White, 1981Life was indeed exciting, challenging and anything but normal for the Navy officer’s daughter. Born in Oakland on March 7, 1947, to Russell and Nan Daniels, Gay was the youngest of three daughters born into a career Navy family.

After her father retired from Navy service, her family settled in Tulsa, Okla., where she completed high school and enrolled at the University of Tulsa. She also attended Marshall University and UCLA. She moved to Arkansas in 1971, having grown to love the state in her visits to her sister. Her sister lived in Little Rock and her brother-in-law was a lobbyist working on David Pryor’s challenge to Senator John McClellan’s bid for a sixth term. Little did she know that her first exposure to Arkansas politics would only be the beginning.

She was hired as secretary to the Director of the Department of Finance and Administration and it was there that she came into contact with a big, smiling, outgoing former banker who was then Director of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission. He introduced himself to Gay in much the same way that he would introduce himself to Arkansans over the next three decades: “Hi, I’m Frank White.” After declining a couple of invitations, she accepted his invitation to dinner. The couple married in 1975.

After a whirlwind campaign, Gay would share the national spotlight in 1980 with the man that had won not only the biggest upset victory of that watershed election year, but the biggest political upset in Arkansas history.

A popular first lady, Gay adopted senior citizens’ issues as one of her chief causes of her time in the Governor’s Mansion. She also served as state chair for the Mothers’ March of Dimes Campaign and was active in programs at Arkansas Children’s’ Hospital.

After Gov. White’s term ended in 1983, Gay continued her involvement in politics. She was active in Little Rock civic affairs, enthusiastically promoting youth literacy efforts, such as the Reading for Fun program, and programs promoting better nutrition. After her husband’s passing in 2003, Gay continued to be prominent in Republican circles, presiding at the inauguration of the “Hi, I'm Frank White” Awards in 2006 to honor those persons who have done the most to build the Arkansas GOP. She currently serves the Old State House as a board member of the Old State House Museum Associates.