Lib Carlisle “The luckiest orphan in the country”
November 13-19, 2023
By Jay Edwards
Thomas Real Estate sits just a stone’s throw from the historical Saline County courthouse in downtown Benton. and if you desire a history lesson from past decades about the fastest growing county in Arkansas, you won’t find a better educator than the man who sits at the helm of the aforementioned company, Lilburn (Lib) Carlisle.
Behind his desk in the large office filled with memories of a lifetime, hangs a mural that Carlisle is quick to explain.
“This is Saline County,” he begins. “That’s a house towards Lake Norrell, that’s the courthouse, and this is the old high school.” He then points to a photo hanging on the wall. “That picture is where you get the drinking water for Saline County, from the river. So, when people come in here from out of town, who have never been here before, I start out with a little show about Saline County.”
If anyone can be an entertaining guide through the decades of the area it is Carlisle. Born and raised in Benton, he lost his father when he was just eight days old, from a ruptured appendix at the age of 31. The family lived in the country and came to Benton for his delivery, in the home of Robert Thomas, his mother’s brother.
Shortly before his death, his father asked Robert, and his brother Albert, if they would see to it that his son had a chance in life.
“He said, ‘I know I am dying.’ And they said, ‘We will probably have a fight over who gets to take care of him.’ They started me out in life. They were in the insurance and real estate business and that is where they eventually put me. I told everyone I was the luckiest orphan in the country. I had two daddy’s.”
Carlisle’s work ethic began at an early age, in the ninth grade, when he got a job as a soda jerk at Smith Caldwell Drugstore, which closed for business after 133 years this past August.
“I worked there six years,” Carlisle said. “I would wait on the customers who would come in to eat. I always remembered what people ordered and so when they came in they wouldn’t even say what they wanted, I just handed it to them. People don’t change.”
“I was 15 when I started working there. But you were supposed to be 16 before you could get a work permit, which would allow you to work after six o’clock. Well, I didn’t have my permit yet and one day someone turned Mr. Smith in over that. He got a call saying someone was coming by to check it out. Mr. Smith told me to get in the garbage can out back of the store and he would come get me when they were done. So I went back there and I waited and I waited and I waited. Finally I got up and pushed the back door open and asked Mr. Smith if they were gone yet. He looked surprised and said they’d left an hour ago. He’d forgotten about me in that trash can! That really got to him and we became buddies from then on. He even let me take inventory of the store during the Christmas holidays, to give me some money to go to college on. Wasn’t that great.”
After finishing high school Carlisle headed to Arkadelphia and Ouachita College where he was in ROTC.
“I was a 2nd Lieutenant in ROTC. We got paid $225 a month our junior and senior year to sign up for advanced ROTC, which meant I also had to serve in the military. My stint in the army was supposed to be two years but I only served six months because the Korean War was over with and they had more 2nd Lieutenants running around than they could shake a stick at.”
It was while he was at Ouachita that Carlisle met Sandra, his wife of over 60 years. Two years after the couple were married, Carlisle heard from his uncle Robert with an offer to move home to Benton and join his new real estate company.
“My uncle Robert died five years after I came up here and it was up to me to take over the business. I was only 27 and people that young just didn’t take over real estate and insurance companies. But I didn’t have a choice, so Sandra and I did it. We were nervous at first but it is a good town and people started working with us and helping us. We learned how to put VA and FHA loans together. Nobody in the county was doing that yet.”
“We started right across the street in a little old stucco building. A one room office. We had a modern bathroom. But you had to go outside to get to it,” he says laughing. “We just outgrew ourselves. It didn’t take long either. When I got up here Uncle Robert went to talk to my mother one day and told her not to worry about me, that I would make it. But he wouldn’t tell me that. But he told my mother, ‘Don’t worry about Lib. He’ll be alright.’”
One of the things Carlisle is proud of is starting a Realtor board in Saline County.
“Many of the companies were run by older folks in those days who weren’t really looking for change,” Carlisle said. “Charles Penfield and I and another man named Crawford started meeting once a week at noon and began talking about a board.”
Out of those talks came The Benton Bryant Realtors Association, which is now the South Central Arkansas Realtors Association. Sandra Carlisle was the board’s first executive director.
“She did it for 14 years with no pay,” Carlisle said. “We wanted that thing to work, which it has, and it has helped us all. We have over a hundred members now.”
Carlisle sold his insurance company five years ago.
It did business all over Arkansas, which he says grew from the people he met through his relationship with Bill Clinton.
“I was one of the lucky three who was with him the night he decided to run for president,” he said. “We rented a room at the Capitol Hotel in Little Rock. We worked it where nobody knew where we were and that is where the decision was made.”
Carlisle was chairman of the state Democratic Party for six years.
“I helped Bill get elected,” he said. “Did a lot of fundraisers for him. And that is how I met a lot of people. It was a fun time. We went everywhere. I mean we campaigned…he’d go one way and I’d go one way. Then we would meet back up. We had fundraisers in Washington in the back of a store. Some guy would let us have his tables back there and we’d invite people to come in and we’d get commitments. It takes a lot of money to run for office, especially for president of the United States. If you don’t have it you aren’t going to win.”
“For somebody to get elected president from a state as small as ours, that’s a miracle. We had to do lots of work. Later, he wanted me to go with him to Washington, but my mother was still alive. She was in her eighties. He said, ‘Well I am going to go talk to her.’ I said, ‘Good luck, be my guest.’ We went up to my mother’s house. Boy he talked and he talked. He lost that battle. She said, ‘Nope, he can go off and run around with you but when I need him, he’s got to be here. He’s all I have.’ Bill understood that. We are still friends and keep in touch.”
If you find yourself in downtown Benton with some extra time, drop into Thomas Real Estate and say hello to Lib Carlisle. It’s likely you won’t find him alone though, visitors are a regular occurrence, along with conversations about real estate, horses and the history of his favorite county. You may even pick up a good tip or two, if you’re considering a run for office.