Willie Oates, Arkansas' 'Hat Lady,' Dies

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Tuesday, Mar. 4, 2008 10:24 am  

Will Etta "Willie" Oates died Tuesday. In 2005, she was photographed by Nancy Nolan for the August edition of Little Rock Soiree magazine.

Will Etta "Willie" Oates, a major fund-raiser in Arkansas' nonprofit community known for her colorful collection of hats, died Tuesday morning. She was 90.

Oates was born to Harry and Fern Long in Arkansas City, Kan., on Jan. 14, 1918. She attended the University of Arkansas in 1938, where she was a cheerleader. There, she also met the man who would be her husband, Gordon Page Oates. They were married in 1941, the year she graduated.

The Oates' had two children, retired Little Rock banker Randy Oates and Dr. Debbie Irwin.

In 1959, she was the first woman elected to the Arkansas Legislature in more than 30 years. It was during that time that began wearing the colorful hats that would later become her trademark.

Throughout her life, Oates was involved with scores of nonprofits and community organizations. Among other accomplishments, she organized the first cancer chapter in Arkansas, organized the auxiliary for the Central Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute, was the first woman chairman of the Salvation Army, won the Governor's Volunteer Excellence Award in 1988 and was named the "Hat Lady of Arkansas" in 1989 by proclamation of the state Legislature.

Among Oates' last photos were those that appeared in the August 2005 Little Rock Soirée magazine, which ran the "Hat Lady" on the cover. Oates had recently had a stroke and had to be carried into photographer Nancy Nolan's studio.

"Once she was coiffed and in the spotlight, she just lit up and seemed to enjoy the experience," Soirée Editor Becki Moore said. "She was rehospitalized just a day after the photo shoot. Hospital employees asked for, and got, autographs from Willie."

Little Rock Funeral Home is handling arrangements. Her obituary page is available here.

ArkansasBusiness.com will update this story.



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