Jesse Gatewood may have had humble beginnings in life, but the 75-year-old has never let circumstances slow him down, cloud his spirit, or hold him back. When Gatewood was honored as Volunteer of the Year at the Clinton Presidential Center’s annual Volunteer Gala on December 6, it was just the latest in a long line of personal and professional awards.
After all, it’s not every son of a Lonoke dirt farmer who can talk about multiple encounters with a former president as casually — and with as much sincere affection — as if he were talking about an old high school buddy.
“I understand [President Bill Clinton] About once a year,” says Gatewood. “Each year the library was open up until Covid he might make a visit or two to the library. And there are special events where we would definitely see him.
“I make sure to shake his hand because if there’s one thing President Clinton is going to do, he’s going to stand there and greet every volunteer. He’s an amazing man.”
In fact, the former president would have been on hand to personally honor Gatewood had he not been diagnosed with Covid. While his presence would indeed have been a scrapbook-worthy moment, his absence did nothing to lessen the impact of the award on Gatewood.
“I’m absolutely proud of it,” he said. “When I heard my name, I had to sit there for a moment. I just thought is this real? I finally got up and started walking, not realizing that I was saying out loud, ‘Is that real?'”
OLDEST OF NINE
Gatewood was born to Lewis and Lillie Pearl Gatewood, the eldest of nine children. His father moved the family from a tenant’s existence to an “in town” life where his mother was a hairdresser. According to his earliest memories, the marching orders at the Gatewood house should suffice for the less fortunate.
“I can remember walking around with my parents as a 5-year-old boy and growing up as a little adult,” says Gatewood. “I hung out with my mom a lot. When my mom got her cosmetologist certification, she started working at her beauty salon, which was called the Streamline Beauty Shop. I did things with her; she volunteered, helped the elderly, and I just hung out with her.”
At the behest of his mother, Gatewood was a familiar sight around town, running errands helping people who needed it. He delivered firewood in red carloads to elderly and withdrawn neighbors whose plight Lillie Pearl had heard about.
“That’s the beginning of my volunteer work,” he says. “It’s just in my DNA and I’ve never stopped.”
Gatewood graduated from the segregated George Washington Carver High School in Lonoke and attended Grambling College in Louisiana (now Grambling State University), where he earned a degree in health and physical education. Throughout high school and college, he found ways to volunteer, sometimes organizing classmates to join him in his efforts.
Even his career carried elements of servant leadership, beginning with the Arkansas Rehabilitation Service, where he worked his way up to senior counselor for the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment Classification Center.
“HOW CAN YOU HELP”
“These are children who have been convicted by juvenile courts and instead of being taken back to their homes or to their community, they have been sent to us for examination,” he says. “We had a group of people consisting of psychiatrists, psychological examiners, social workers, nurses, recreationalists, educators. We all spoke to the youth and tried to come up with a recommendation on how we could help them through this process.
“They could come from ages 10 to 17, kids who had committed a crime or run away from home or whose parents just couldn’t control them, they were incorrigible. We made recommendations that some of them would send to Wrightsville Training School, Pine Bluff Training School and Alexander Girls Training School.”
Gatewood joined the Office of the Deaf and Hearing Impaired, where he served as a local consultant helping deaf and hard of hearing people improve their quality of life. He found this work so rewarding that in 1979 he applied for and got the position of Administrator for the Arkansas Center for Cultivating Employability, Self Sufficiency, or Deaf ACCESS for short. He served in this role for more than three decades before retiring in 2004.
“Becoming a manager was a dream come true,” he says. “I was able to steer the program where it needed to go and it was magical.” He was disturbed to see that some people were being placed in facilities with no clear plan to help them exit. “They were just there. We pulled people from these facilities and trained them with the help of outside sources. I had good employees and they had an excellent, winning attitude.”
He also earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Harding University and served as an adjunct professor at a number of area colleges and universities.
“I was really a geriatric hustler,” he says, laughing. He has worked as an adjunct professor at Shorter College, Philander Smith College, Pulaski Tech, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. “I worked for the Baptist School of Nursing. ‘Adjunct’ means you go where they need you. I also spent five years at Philander as an assistant professor of psychology under Dr. Patricia Griffin, who was then the head of the psychology department.”
Throughout his professional life, he continued his volunteer work unabated, with a particular focus on organizations that served children and youth.
“I started out with the William Thrasher Boys Club on 33rd Street,” he said. “I have worked with children in my church. I volunteered at Children’s Hospital where I was a rocker to the babies who were sometimes literally left on the hospital’s doorstep. I would go after work and just say give me one. I would rock her.
“I volunteered at The Watershed when there was a disaster and over the holidays. I volunteered at Jericho Way, a homeless center [the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences] and i’m still here I’ve been doing this since 2006 after my father died of cancer. I decided to go ahead and volunteer.”
ONCE A WEEK
His decision 18 years ago to add the Clinton Presidential Center, where he dedicates one day per week plus special events as an instructor, was in part a way of showing his Arkansas pride.
“When the Presidential Library became available, I said, ‘Man, I have to look into this,'” he says. “I mean, this is Arkansas, and we had a man from Hope who became president. Could I miss this opportunity? And do you know that we meet people from all over the world? It was fun then and it’s still fun 18 years later.”
When asked how many tours he has led during this time, he only laughs in exasperation.
“I can’t put that into numbers,” he says. “Let’s just say hundreds.”
Gatewood has made it a point to visit other presidential libraries across the country for several years. Though he doesn’t want to badmouth any of them, he said the Little Rock attraction volunteers are by far the best.
“I love touring. I love talking about the President,” he says. “Of course we have transcripts and we had to study these things, but we don’t go around reading, we go around giving the speeches with enthusiasm, with a smile on our faces.
“It is in that spirit that I do this work. ‘Come on, let me surprise you! Let me give you an amazing tour of this facility!’ It doesn’t matter what your politics are, there’s always something good to talk about in a presidential library.”