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Hundreds of high school students explored the halls of the Arkansas Capitol last week during the annual exercise in government known as Girls State and Boys State.
The week-long programs, which are sponsored by the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary, offer rising seniors the chance to form a government, run for office, and write and vote on legislation. At the end of the week, the students visit the Arkansas Capitol, where they conduct the business of state government in the place where it really happens.
During Boys State and Girls State, the students ran intense campaigns for office, negotiated and passed laws, and held a press conference to announce an economic development project.
On Thursday and Friday, in keeping with tradition, I vacated my office for the newly elected governors. This year, I lent my chair to Trinity Foster from Crossett as Girls State Governor and Pablo Velasco-Moya from Brinkley as Boys State Governor. Let me assure you, they represent their community and state very well. And Pablo Velasco-Moya is the first Latino elected as Boys State Governor.
Arkansas Boys State began in 1940, and Girls State in 1942. The early days of the program were practically a boot camp. Boys and girls alike slept on cots in unairconditioned four-person huts at Camp Robinson.
Bryan Rogers, who was elected Boys State president pro tem of the Senate in 1972, described the experience like this: “We marched like soldiers everywhere we went. We were up at 6 a.m. to salute the flag and do calisthenics. We ate in a mess hall.”
For 81 and 79 years respectively, the programs have produced leaders in business, education, and politics. Some already showed promise as teenagers. Mr. Rogers recalls that Mike Huckabee “was already a polished and charismatic public speaker when he won Boys State Governor in a landslide.”
Bill Clinton is another alumnus whose week at Boys State played a significant role in his career. The year he attended, his friend from Hope, Mack McLarty, was elected governor. Mr. McLarty later served at the White House with President Clinton. Mr. Clinton was elected Boys State senator, which qualified him to participate in Boys Nation in Washington, D.C.
That is where the president-to-be met President John Kennedy at the White House, and the photograph of that meeting became famous as President Clinton rose to national prominence.
Other Boys State alumni include four-star General Wesley Clark, and state legislators Eddie Armstrong, Jonathan Barnett, Shane Broadway, and Joe T. Ford; House of Representatives Parliamentarian Tim Massanelli; Jack Watson, who served in President Carter’s administration; and U.S. Senators John Boozman and Tom Cotton. Both major party nominees for governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Chris Jones, were delegates for Girls and Boys State.
Len Cotton, a cattle farmer and a member of the 1962 class, is one of five commissioners who oversee Boys State. He usually speaks on the opening night of Boys State. “I always tell them, ‘You’re going to meet people who are going to become elected officials. Or you could see a Bill Clinton.’”
Congratulations Girls State and Boys State's Class of 2022. You’ve got a great tradition at your back as you choose your path in life.