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Patty Criner, Childhood friend and a Clinton campaigner. She first raised money for Bill in a pail for his '74 congressional race.

Interviewed May 13, 1996


FL: Can you talk about your memories of Hot Springs?

CRINER:

[It was a] big town. And I think only years later are we really looking back, those of us that grew up in Hot Springs, to realize how magical it really was. It was a town, I guess, unique mainly because it was a resort. And being a resort, people came from all over the country and from all over the world. The city had no livelihood or economic base other than tourism. So people would come to see the horse races, the play on the three lakes that surrounded the little town in the valley. They would come from all over the country and probably the world, for the hot springs, the natural hot thermal baths. They would come to walk up and down the streets and see the souvenir shops and the auction houses. People, movie stars came to Hot Springs. They would come to make appearances at matinees at the movie theaters. We had more movie theaters than any other little town in Arkansas. And I can remember as a kid seeing movie stars, seeing Roy Rogers, seeing Trigger come to Hot Springs, just for a matinee so the kids could stop and say hello.

Then many came to perform at the night clubs. The very sparkling night life of Hot Springs. It was a magical town. I think that it was a town where you were surrounded by so many people of different nationalities, different religions. People came to town to try matzo ball soup at Molly's Restaurant on Central Avenue or to go up the street to the little Bohemian restaurant, or out in the southern part of town to the Greek restaurant. These people had come from all over the world and lived in Hot Springs. A lot of older people. And I think it was unique in that respect, because we were surrounded by older people who had moved and made permanent residence in Hot Springs, and then there were people who came periodically, seasonally, for the lakes and the races.

And in a lot of the big hotels there would be dancing every Friday and Saturday night. And you would see people sitting in big Adirondack chairs on the front porches of the big hotels who had come from New York to take the hot baths and bask in the sun out on the verandahs of the Arlington Hotel, I can remember it as a kid. They had these big ducks. I don't know how to describe them other than they are large amphibian vehicles that drive through town and pick up tourists and then they would drive out to the lakes. And then they could drive right into the water and take you on a tour of the lake. And all of these things were going on around us.

We were just average kids growing up in the `50's and early `60's. We were good kids. You know it was an era when you didn't smoke and you didn't drink and you made good grades and you participated in every school organization and every community organization. And then you did what just normal kids do. You cruise around in cars listening to music and stopping at Cook's Ice Cream where they would bring big fountain sodas out to the cars. Or you would stop at Cecil's Pull a Bar and have a hamburger. We were just normal kids. But living in a town that was very extraordinary in my opinion. Hot Springs was such a hub of activity that every kid who was in a band, for instance, would come to Hot Springs for the state band festival. Every kid who was in some music program would come to Hot Springs for the music festival. Conventions were held there. It was such a hub of activity that people were constantly, there was an influx from all over the state and from around the country. At one point it was really kind of a high hot spot for the Southwest. It was just a very different community. Little, but very metropolitan in some respects.

FL: What about the uniqueness, the co-mingling with the gambling?

CRINER:

When we were growing up, we had a horse race track which was legalized paramutual betting. And Oklahoma Race Track has been there as long as I can remember. And there was another gambling side of Hot Springs which was actually illegal casino gambling and slot machines in a lot of the restaurants. Although as kids we knew those things existed we were too young. You weren't allowed to go into the race track until you were 16 years old. And you were not allowed ever to go into the casinos.

But I'm sure that it brought a lot of excitement to Hot Springs because I can remember when Liberace performed at one of the night clubs and Phyllis Diller performed. People like that would come in as a result of the night life. That was primarily because they could afford it. The nightclubs would hire big entertainers and so we would see their names in the newspapers and their pictures in the newspapers. It was a part of life that brought a lot of difference to Hot Springs. We as kids were not directly involved in it, but it was fun.

FL: Memories of Hot Springs growing up and knowing how unique it was?

CRINER:

We knew it was slightly different than other towns because we had so many different offerings that you didn't find in other towns in Arkansas. We had an alligator farm. We had an IQ Zoo where very smart animals did very clever tricks. We had big ducks that would take you touring through downtown and out onto the lakes. Because it was different I don't think we knew how different it was. We never stopped to say, "Isn't this unusual? Isn't this town different?" We knew it was different. You'd drive down the street and you'd see auction house after auction house, souvenir shop after souvenir shop. That was not typical for any other town in Arkansas. People would move here from New York and make it their residence. People would come from Chicago and retire in Hot Springs. We were very well aware of, sort of, our center in Arkansas and in the universe, but we never sat and talked about it in terms of its uniqueness.

FL: Let's talk a little bit about that American Graffiti childhood you had in Hot Springs with Bill.

CRINER:

I've know Bill Clinton since 1951- 52 when we were young children, starting in the first and second grade at St. John's Catholic School in Hot Springs. I mentioned earlier about some of the older people in Hot Springs and the way kids were involved with older people. I can remember Bill Clinton's stepfather, Roger Clinton, worked at the car dealership around the corner from my parents' movie theater. And it was a little corridor that we traveled, that we'd walk across the street and look in the Coca-Cola bottling company window and watch the conveyor belt go around with the small glass coke bottles. And we'd walk across the street then and stop in Brown's Sporting Goods to say hello to Tilford Brown and look at the sporting equipment. And then we'd walk up the street and stop in the bakery and have a pastry, and then we'd go to the Liberty Cafe and have a bologna sandwich. And then we'd go in the movie theater. And then we'd go up the street to Papa's Restaurant and have a sandwich.

But you would know all those people along the street and they would know you. And it was kind of fun to be a part of the lives of those people who were, in many instances, the parents of kids we went to school with. But we'd stop in and actually check on them and engage with them and we knew these people. It was as if there was no age distinction here among our friends. I can remember times when Bill Clinton and a lot of kids from his class would go riding in cars listening to Elvis Presley on the radio and rolling the windows down and singing "Love Me Tender" at the top of your lungs. And then driving up to Cook's Ice Cream and ordering chocolate marshmallow sundaes and they would bring in a big silver compote out to the window. It was a fun time.

And school was very much the soul of our maneuverings as kids. Whether it be Randall School, that was the elementary school that we attended, or high school, we were very involved in school and all the activities in school. We loved our friends, and Bill Clinton was very involved in the band and was the drum major. I was very involved in the thespians and the theater groups. And we all worked in student council. You did those things, those activities together which kind of brought you closer together over a life time.

FL: On Saturdays you would do what?

CRINER:

Well, a lot of times we would hang out at Bill's house some when he lived on Park Avenue in South Hot Springs and play cards or watch something special on television, Ed Sullivan. I really can't remember. I don't remember anything special on a Saturday night. I worked a lot. I worked in my folks' theater so I was tied up a lot of Saturday nights.

FL: You had a wonderful story that you told me about seeing Bill walk off to church by himself.

CRINER:

I lived in the same area of Hot Springs where Bill lived when he was young. And my mother, who was a single parent, would get her three children up and get us all ready to go to Sunday school and church and it was a major ordeal because we would think of every excuse in the world not to go. And as we would drive to church, there was an intersection at Park and Holly street where we stopped every morning and then turn right to go downtown to the Methodist church where we went to church. And I can remember looking many, many times to the left and seeing Bill Clinton walking down Park Avenue to Park Place Baptist Church all dressed in his suit and tie and carrying his Bible. And he would be by himself walking down the sidewalk toward church. And I often thought, "How does he get there?" I mean here he is going to church and my mother has done everything she could to pull it together and force us to go to church. But it's a very vivid memory and Bill must have been 7, 8, 9 years old. Something in that range. I can see him to this day, walking to his church every Sunday morning when we would stop at the intersection there.

FL: Nobody was walking to church with him?

CRINER:

No, Virginia didn't, didn't go to church with him often. But he did get up and go to church every Sunday and has as long as I've known him. Always carrying his Bible with him.

FL: Let's just talk about Virginia. Larger than life.

CRINER:

Amazing, amazing. Virginia is, was one of the most amazing people I've ever known and I think everyone who knew her would tell you the same thing. She was very much like a star. She illuminated every room she entered. She radiated a warmth that she shared with everyone who ever passed her way. She was just very special, very magical. She had a wonderful laugh. I loved to hear her laugh. And she laughed all the time. If Virginia was not laughing, you knew there was something serious, something wrong. She had this positive, very upbeat outlook on life. Always had that. Up until her death. She was always very, very positive. And she believed in putting her best foot forward, and in putting her best face forward. As we talked about, and a lot of people have commented, Virginia always looked so perfect.

Virginia took time, on occasions I've seen her really get prepared to go out and seize the day. She believed that you need to put your best face on in order to, it made her feel good. It made her feel like she was doing her best and it was out of respect for the people that she would meet during the day. And she was very organized. And I can remember watching her put her makeup on. And she would very carefully, everything was in perfect order, everything was in its place on her dressing table in her bathroom, and she would very carefully put on her foundation and her very expressive eyebrows, and her very stylish eyelashes. And with a brush and pencil she would paint on her red lipstick. And, with every hair in place, then she would be ready to go out and seize the day.

Virginia would begin her day very, very early. I'm not a morning person so I always admired the fact that she was up and at 'em very early. And it took some time. To put her makeup on and get her hair perfect and her clothes all coordinated. And she would go to a local cafe. The same one where she'd see her regular group of friends very early, before she went on to the hospital where she was a nurse/anesthetist. And she would walk into the cafe and say good morning to every person in the room. As she was sauntering to her table she'd pat 'em on the back and say, "Where have you been? I've missed you," and somebody would make a joke and she'd laugh and then she'd go have her coffee and breakfast. And then on to the hospital where she was a nurse/anaesthetist and there were many, many people who said "If Virginia's not there I'm not having my surgery this morning." And all the time she was beautifully made up, totally dressed, ready for whatever happening there was during the day.

And during the racing season it was very fun. They would finish all their cases by noon so that Virginia could get to the racetrack on time for race number one. Off she would go, still with her best face ready to seize the day. She was amazing. And she was terribly clear in her loyalties to her family and her friends. If you were Virginia's friend, you were her friend for life, regardless. She never forgot you. She always was very interested in the little people in life. At Virginia's funeral, there were over 3,000 people. And that's the most amazing thing I've ever seen in a town the size of Hot Springs. And the people came from all walks of life. People who worked in restaurants, people who worked at service stations, people who waited tables in restaurants. It was amazing the way that people loved Virginia, and that's because of this warmth she radiated to all of them. All of her life I remember that.

FL: Describe that flamboyant part of Virginia.

CRINER:

Virginia was absolutely full of life. She loved to be among people. She loved to engage in conversation with people. She loved to go to hear the performers who came in from all over the country at some of the night clubs. I can remember hearing her talk about how she loved Liberace's performances. She loved his outrageous costumes and his outrageous jewelry. And Virginia would dress to the hilt. Red was her favorite color. She wore a lot of red. And you'd notice her when she came because she was beautifully made up and had a lot of red lipstick and often times a black velvet jacket with red on it and she was very sparkly and glittery. She loved the nightclub. That was a part of, when, in times she didn't have to work or on the weekends, she would go to hear performances by these famous people. It was fun for her. There are a lot of people in Hot Springs who love that type of fun and activity and Virginia was a part of it.

And she loved the horse races. Virginia was not a big better at the horse races. She was $2 better. But she knew those horses and she knew the trainers and she knew the jockeys and she knew their families and she kept up with them. And when it would come racing season, you knew where to find her. She was in the same box at the race track the whole 33 days or 43 days of the meet. So everyone knew where to find Virginia. She loved the races.

FL: Were there people in Hot Springs who were taken aback by Virginia, thought she went too far?

CRINER:

I don't think anybody in Hot Springs, people loved Virginia. One of the things about Hot Springs and one of the things that's unique, there was very little class distinction in Hot Springs. Everyone was middle class. There might be, you just don't think of a very big distinction in class in Hot Springs in the '50's, early '60's, when we grew up. People loved Virginia. Everybody that I can think of. My mother's friends, kids that I went to school with, Bill's friends. People really liked Virginia, everyone knew Virginia and she always had a smile or a wave for everybody. So I really, I don't recall anything other than admiration. People really just had fun when they were with Virginia.

FL: You were one of the very few people that she told all her problems to.

CRINER:

That's because there was no age distinction in Hot Springs. I've had a lot of very serious family discussions with Virginia over a life time and I was aware that there were some sadness and some problems where Roger Clinton, Sr. was concerned. And these were hard on their family. But over the years I think everyone made peace with Roger and when Roger was sick, Bill Clinton spent many, many weekends checking on him when he was at Duke University Hospital. I think Virginia always had a very warm spot for Roger Clinton and cared very much about him. They just had some hard times and we did talk about them but not to any great depth.

Virginia had such a positive outlook that she didn't dwell on the things that were, for other people, downers and sad and could make you sit around feeling sorry for yourself. That was not Virginia. Nor was that Bill Clinton. He never talked about the fact that his stepfather was an alcoholic. He never, to his kids, friends at school. Very few people knew that. He didn't dwell on that. He had the same positive outlook that his mother did. And those were things that happened at home and they would get through them and they did. And were stronger as a result. But they certainly didn't dwell on them and share them with a lot of people.

FL: Do you remember when she did confide in you?

CRINER:

I do remember conversations about their family and Roger, but a lot of those discussions focused more on what she was doing. She was trying to protect her boys and teach them the things that she thought were important. We talked about things like, and a lot you didn't have to talk about with Virginia because there were two things about Virginia that you always knew. She was very loyal and you knew that the two things that she felt were the most important about people in general: you had to be honest, you had to tell the truth and you had to be fair. And honesty and fairness were rules where Virginia was concerned. There was no gray. It was strictly black or white here. You told the truth or you didn't. You were fair or you didn't. And those things as it related to her two boys and their upbringing were very clear and you would hear her say that. "This is the way it is going to be. If people treat me fairly. If people are honest, this is the way I believe the boys should be raised. This is the way I deal with people." And she was very straightforward in that respect. You never had to dig Virginia up to find out how she felt about something. She would let you know.

FL: Her funeral -- how crowded it was, and what the streets looked like that day....

CRINER:

Virginia's funeral was quite a tribute, in and of itself, to Virginia. It was held at the city's civic auditorium to accommodate the numbers of people who wanted to attend. There were people from all over the country. There were people from every walk of life from Hot Springs. When you entered the auditorium, there were 3,000 seats filled and then there were people standing at the back of the auditorium. The aisles were very wide and had a dark red carpet from the back door to the front and then around the front of the stage. And all sides of the aisle, the front of the stage were covered with flowers. I don't think I've ever seen this many flowers. And they were sent from, you'd see on that had a big horseshoe on it and it was sent from the racing association. And there would be another one that would say, "These two roses came from all the employees at the hamburger joint at the corner." There were flowers lining the building, outside on the, I guess just as you entered the auditorium, there were speakers for the few people who literally just could not get in the building. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen. And then after the funeral, when Virginia, the motorcade and everything went to Hope where she would be buried, there were people all along the roads. No one had any idea that the motorcade and the funeral procession was coming down this highway or another. But there were people lining the streets all the way to Hope, Arkansas with people waving and saying, "We love you Virginia. We'll miss you Virginia." I mean, it was the most touching, memorable thing I think I can recall. What a wonderful service. And all the music. It was exactly like she would have wanted.

FL: How do you see Virginia living on in Bill?

CRINER:

Virginia and Bill were really like twinkies. Virginia and Bill were very, very close. She will always be there as a part of his life. And I know it's a loss and a sadness that he will have for a long time and not talk about it much, but I know that he thinks about his mother a lot. And I think her positive attitude and her belief that you can work through any problem, you can resolve any difficulty as long as you're honest and fair, and treat people that way. I think Bill Clinton will always behave that way and will always hear his mother's voice saying those words.

FL: You scheduled him for a campaign?

CRINER:

I did work in scheduling for Bill Clinton when he was Governor in his first term. And that was an amazing feat to try to schedule a day for Bill Clinton when he wanted to work 24 hours a day. I've never seen people try to put as many things in one day. And he's always been that way. You know that little rabbit that goes like this, that just the battery never runs down. He has this unbelievable amount of energy. That's another thing he gets from his mother, she had tremendous energy. But scheduling for him is very complex because he wanted to attend everything, he wanted to see every person who wanted to see him. He wanted to deal with every problem that you could ever think of. He wanted every school group who wanted to come and see him. So sometimes you had to try to help him save himself from himself. But it was fun. It was interesting because we really did get most of those people in. I can remember one time though when Chelsea was born. And a typical day in the office would be for the then Governor Clinton to arrive and have appointments in the office every fifteen minutes all day long, then take a short break for lunch, have meetings in the afternoon, press conferences, etc., etc. all day long, meetings in the evening, dinners in the evening, a very full day.

But when Chelsea was born I decided to send him a memo to find out how he wanted me to adjust his schedule. So I ask, "Would you like to come in early and leave early? Would you like to come in late and take off at four every afternoon? Would you like to have extra time during the noon hour? Would you like to not work at all on Fridays?" And I got the memo back 2 days later, checked. He wanted to do every one of those. And initialled it and thought, "This is going to be great. We have 30 minutes left in the whole week now to deal with government. He was going to stay at home and be with Chelsea."

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