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Leitrim’s lone ranger aims for Arkansas statehouse

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Harry Keaney

President Bill Clinton and Leitrim man Patrick J. Travers have at least one thing in common: Arkansas is their political nursery. But every bit as much as Clinton, Travers is the personification of something quintessentially American. Namely, both possess that pioneering spirit of risk-taking and dream-making.

In 1982, Travers, who was reared in Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim, arrived in Little Rock, Ark with only a backpack, a tent, and a determination to “get on.” He knew no one there; in fact, on his first night in Little Rock, he slept under a bridge in the city’s War Memorial Park.

The lone hitchhiker from Ireland has come a long way. These days, Travers, 42, is completing a four-year term as mayor of Waldron, a town near the Oklahoma border, with a population of 3,024, northwest of Little Rock, the Arkansas state capital.

As a Democrat and an Arkansas mayor, Travers was among the VIPs at both of Clinton’s presidential inaugurations. Now Travers is a candidate for state representative in a May 19 primary, hoping to represent District 16 in the Arkansas State House.

Travers’s life’s journey began Aug. 4, 1955, in Holles Street Hospital in Dublin, where his mother, Mary Leavey, from Newtownforbes, Co. Longford, was a nurse. His father, Pakie, was born in Aughnasheelin, Co. Leitrim.

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Having attended national school in Ballinamore and boarding school in Clara, Co. Offaly, Travers, like a lot of other young Leitrim emigrants, then left for England. He was just 19.

For four years, he worked as a personal assistant to Lt. Commander Lloyd of the Royal Naval Volunteers Officers’ Association, the headquarters of which is in the Naval Club, in London.

“I answered an ad in a newspaper,” said Travers, explaining how he got the job in the Naval Club. “I was interviewed, Lt. Commander Lloyd liked me, we got on well together.

“I discovered while I was there that a foreigner working in Britain for a foreign company could be tax exempt. I think that’s changed now, but at the time I got a job working for the First National Bank of Chicago for three years.”

But Travers also had a weekend job, in a fur shop. That rather quaint work would, by a circuitous route, become his passport to America and to Arkansas.

“I got to know a lot of people in the fur business,” Waldron said. “The man I worked for in London was an old Greek furrier. As they would say at home in Ireland, I ‘watched the shop for him.’ I learned the fur trade from him and then I left.”

When he was 23, Travers crossed the channel to Paris, where he spent a few months working in the fur business there before returning to London.

Arrival in the U.S.

In 1982, aged 27, Travers flew to the U.S., arriving in Boston. He had a visitor’s visa.

“I hadn’t a relative here,” Travers said. “I had a rucksack, a tent and a backpack. I hitch-hiked to friends in Providence, R.I., and then from there to New York. I wanted to see the fur business in Manhattan.”

But with the great American continent beckoning, Travers did not spend long in the Big Apple.

“I had already lived in London and Paris, I didn’t want to live in a big city again, and I wanted to see America,” Travers said. “I knew the U.S. was big but I never realized it was so big until I began to hitch-hike. I wanted to go and see the Florida Keys, to see the Grand Canyon . . .

“I had also heard in New York that a company in Little Rock was looking for a furrier. My expertise was dealing in the retail end, and doing cuttings and alterations. I am a furrier designer. So I took a Greyhound bus to Little Rock and called the company, Bensky Furs, one of the oldest fur companies in the South Central U.S.”

But if Bensky Furs were to give Travers a job as a furrier, Travers first had to obtain an appropriate work visa. There was no Immigration and Naturalization Office in Little Rock, so he had to travel to INS offices in either Memphis or Dallas. He went to Memphis, where his visa application was processed.

Not wishing to waste time while awaiting word on his application, Travers decided to use the opportunity to do something he really wanted to do: see the U.S. He got a book on America’s state parks and hitch-hiked from one state park to the next. He traveled the U.S. from top to bottom, from New Orleans to Florida, Georgia, Colorado, the Dakotas, Montana, across the U.S.-Canadian border into Saskatchewan, up the Alcan Trail, on to Watson Lake in Yukon, and into Alaska.

“I got a ride out of Anchorage, in Alaska, back to Salt Lake City, Utah, where I met a guy who was a captain on a ship in San Diego,” Travers said. “He took me to see Las Vegas. I couldn’t believe the opulence and expense I saw in Las Vegas.”

From San Diego, Travers went on to Louisiana and south into Mexico. After about nine months of travel, he arrived back in Little Rock, minus two toes, the result of wearing new boots as he climbed down the Grand Canyon.

Visa delay

By now, Bensky Furs was anxiously looking for its furrier, and Travers was becoming impatient waiting for his visa. But a hitch emerged; he had to return to Dublin to obtain the visa. However, when Travers arrived in the U.S. Embassy in Ballsbridge, no one there knew anything about him or his application. So every day for the next week and a half, Travers persisted in visiting the embassy and enquiring about his application. Eventually it was found, but then another problem emerged: he had to prove he would return to Ireland after a year.

In the end, Travers got his visa, but on return to Little Rock, he found his apartment locked and cleaned out. Apparently, some people in Little Rock really believed he was not going to return to the city. They were wrong, of course.

Back in Little Rock with his one-year work visa, Travers’s thoughts turned to the more distant future. “I knew few people in Little Rock and I started to realize this visa I got was only for a year,” Travers said. “So I wondered should I apply for permanent status or not. If I didn’t apply, I might have been able to stay on, but if I applied and didn’t get it, I would have to go home. In the end, I took a chance and applied for permanent status and I got it, and from 1983 to 1990 I worked for Bensky Furs.”

But while Bensky Furs provided Travers with a job, it also indirectly introduced him to local politics. The man who owned the Bensky Furs shop was a Greek named Steve Pappas.

“His daughter, who worked in the shop with me, was married to a man named Chris Piazza, the prosecuting attorney for Pulaski County. So whenever there was an election, I was putting up signs and posters for him. That was my first link to the Democrats.” Travers explained.

If the pursuit of adventure and work brought Travers to Little Rock, it was love that lured him to Scott County and the town of Waldron.

While taking a course at the University of Central Arkansas in Little Rock, he met a native Arkansan, Cheryl Dunn, who was studying for her master’s degree in counseling. She was also doing genealogical research and discovered that her family had come from County Laois. A paternal ancestor fought in the American Revolution, making her a Daughter of the American Revolution.

Travers and Dunn were married on St. Patrick’s Day 1990, about two years after they first met. The Travers family now includes a son, Trey, 6, and a stepson, Trent, 22.

In 1989, Travers became a U.S. citizen, an attainment he describes as his “greatest achievement next to my family.”

Travers also has business interests in Waldron. He initially bought a pawn shop which he has now sold, and he ranched on his wife’s farm raising a herd of registered Longhorns, as well as chickens for Tyson Foods, the massive Arkansas chicken processor.

Travers also owns a moving company and has completed a two-year business internship program at the University of Arkansas Extension Service in Fayetteville. He is at present studying for a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Garland County Community College in Hot Springs.

Political start

Travers’s involvement in local political campaigns led to his candidacy and election to Scott County Quorum Court for two years. “The quorum court is like Leitrim County Council; there are 75 counties in Arkansas,” Travers said.

In 1994, he was elected mayor of Waldron, a full-time job paying $25,000 a year.

“I was elected in 1994 and sworn in in 1995. I am talking to you here from the mayor’s office in Waldron,” he said during a telephone interview last week with the Echo.

“I defeated Jimmy Lasiter, a two-term mayor, and a former state representative, I might add,” Travers said. “I won by 62 percent.”

Waldron, Travers explained, is similar to his native Ballinamore. Around both towns, agriculture is important, with Tyson Foods a major employer in Waldron. “The people in both places, they’re decent, hardworking people,” Travers said.

By now, Travers is no stranger to Arkansas politics, which has, on occasion, become intertwined with Irish politics, thanks to Bill Clinton. After Clinton was elected president, various Irish Americans were eager to ensure that he carried through on his promise to take an interest in Northern Ireland and, in particular, his promise to send a peace envoy to the North. Travers was among those who helped pass a resolution in the Arkansas General Assembly, encouraging the then new president to be sensitive to Irish issues and to the McBride Principles of Fair Employment.

“I think he has made a tremendous difference,” Travers said of Clinton’s efforts in promoting peace in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year, Travers was back in Ballinamore for his father’s funeral. Since Travers first left Ireland more than 20 years ago, he has noticed what he describes as “tremendous changes” in the country, particularly in the economy and the level of affluence. “I wish it was like that when I was there, if it was I wouldn’t be here,” Travers said.

But he added that his own experience in America “is testament to this great country.”

“You can do what you want in the U.S. if you set your mind to it,” Travers said. “I think the biggest problem people have is that they do not accept change. People who take risks in their life will be rewarded. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

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