Set up man at state Capitol retires


LITTLE ROCK — Jonathan Runnells may not have made history, but he helped set up for it and got to watch it happen at Arkansas’ seat of government.

Runnells retired earlier this year after nearly 27 years with the secretary of state’s office, responsible for scheduling and setting up events at the state Capitol. He worked for four secretary of states and under four governors.

“My life has revolved around this place,” Runnells said recently, noting that he visited the Capitol as a child in the 1950s, brought his oldest daughter there to see the nativity scene when she was a child escorted her down the aisle when she got married in the building in 2005.

“I even got married here myself in 1986 and Gov. Bill Clinton performed the ceremony,” he said.

Runnells recalls fights between groups on the Capitol grounds, a flag-burning, craw fish boils, a Brahma bull getting loose on the grounds, the fictitious bombing of the Capitol during the filming of a movie that left a large black smudge on the dome, and a large tree catching fire during the filming of another movie.

Aside from Clinton, who later became president, Runnells said he met a number of famous people at the Capitol over the years, including President Obama, who while an Illinois senator campaigned for Gov. Mike Beebe in 2006. He also met actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, actors Andy Griffith, Billy Bob Thornton, Laura Dern, Kelly Preston, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen; Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and banker and philanthropist David Rockefeller.

“I was privileged to know historical figures like Orval Faubus, Maurice “Footsie” Britt, Frank White, Sid McMath, Joe Purcell, Win Paul Rockefeller and Daisy Bates while they lived, and I was honored to escort their bodies to the rotunda to lie in state after they died,” he said.

Runnells had been a state government reporter for the Arkansas Democrat before he started working for then-Secretary of State Bill McCuen in November 1986. He wrote press releases for McCuen and coordinated and set up for events.

Eventually, as the office became more computerized, his job assignment changed to being “the events guy,” he said, setting up for “any kind of rally, or protest, or movie or wedding or dinner, anything like that.”

“My oldest grandson calls this building ‘G’ Daddy’s Capitol,’” he said. “I admit I like the sound of that.”

Sharon Priest, who was secretary of state and Runnells’ boss from 1995 to 2003, said last week that he was always calm, had a “wry sense of humor” and was “always willing to do whatever.”

“Since he dealt with events, whether it was Saturday, Sunday, a wedding at night or whatever, he was always willing to do what was needed to be done,” she said. “You really appreciate people like that.”

Current Secretary of State Mark Martin said Runnells’ knowledge of the state Capitol and ability to get things done were invaluable.

“His knowledge was crucial at the beginning when I took office, and continued being beneficial to me, and to the office,” Martin said in a statement release by his office. “I am glad I was able to learn from him in the time he was with us. He is truly missed, and I wish him the best in his retirement.”

Runnells said one of the many highlights of his time at the Capitol was getting to watch movies being made, including Under Siege, a television miniseries in 1987, and Stone Cold, in 1990.

In fact, he said he was standing next to McCuen watching the filming of a fictitious terrorist attack on the state Capitol for Under Siege when “the big gasoline ball was supposed to blow up away from the (dome) but the wind changed and blew it back into the dome and it was just burning.”

He said McCuen was not happy.

During the filming of Stone Cold, “they shot a motorcycle out of a fourth floor window of the Capitol into a helicopter,” he said, adding that the plan was for the helicopter, which was being held in the air by a crane, to be carried down the west side parking lot and dropped on several cars parked near the Big Mac Building “and they were to blow it up.”

However, things did not go exactly as planned that Saturday afternoon, he said.

“We had a big Magnolia tree sitting right there on the corner and the tree caught fire and burned,” he said. “So McCuen had (the tree) cut down, we ground up the roots and re-sodded that area, and by Monday morning you couldn’t even tell there had been a tree there and nobody ever said ‘what happened to that tree that was sitting there.’”

Also during the filming of that movie, the Capitol was actually closed for a time “so they could do all their Hollywood stuff, because there was all kinds of motorcycles rolling through the building and gun fire and all that.”

Runnells said Clinton’s presidential campaign and then his election brought a lot of national notoriety to the Capitol, and he regularly saw many national politicians and famous television news personalities walking around the building.

“It was a very busy time,” he said. “I oversaw all the public areas, the hallways, the rotunda, the stairways and the grounds,” he said.

“I’ve organized events for every branch of the military, as well as police officers, firefighters, EMTs, Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, Cubs and Brownies,” he said, adding he also coordinated 26 summer visits by Boys State and Girls State.

During one Boys State visit, several of the boys managed to get on a freight elevator in the Capitol and rode it to fifth floor and then climbed a series of ladders to the Capitol dome.

“Low and behold they were on the dome,” he said. “We were out on the lawn and turned around and looked and there they were waving at their friends down on the ground, so we had to hustle them out of there.”

There also was some not-so-flattering coverage by local television stations during one Boys State visit to the Capitol when some waitresses with the restaurant chain Hooters visited, he said.

“That was actually kind of my fault,” Runnells laughed, adding that the person who was to entertain the visiting boys had asked if some women could hand out discount coupons for the restaurant.

“When they showed up, the girls were wearing blue jeans and t-shirts,” Runnells said. “I said that would be fine, so I turned around and walked off. They then turned around and stripped down into these little skin-tight outfits, orange hot pants with t-shorts with Hooters on them.

“I saw them just when the TV trucks are pulling up and they started filming the Hooters girls out there with the Boys Staters. I of course had to kind of put an end to that.

The entire episode lasted no more than 10 to 15 minutes, he said.

Runnells said he isn’t sure if he “left much of a mark on this wonderful old building, but it certainly left a big mark on me.”

“I tell people I was the unofficial, behind-the-scenes face of the Capitol because I was the one who really dealt with the public,” he said.