Cherry was born in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of a Rock Island Lines railroad conductor. He and his four older siblings grew up in El Reno and Enid, Oklahoma, where he graduated from high school in 1926. He graduated from Oklahoma State University (then A&M College) in Stillwater in 1930. In 1964, he was named "Alumnus of the Year" from Arkansas graduates of OSU. Cherry moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 1932 and entered the University of Arkansas Law School the next year. He received his law degree in 1936.
He moved to Jonesboro in northeastern Arkansas to establish a law practice. In 1940, Governor Carl E. Bailey named him referee for the Workmen's Compensation Commission. In 1942, Cherry was elected chancellor and probate judge of the 12th Judicial District, which included Clay, Crittenden, Greene, Craighead, Mississippi, and Poinsett counties. In 1944, Cherry applied for and received a commission in the United States Navy. He served for the last two years of World War II.
Cherry was elected governor in 1952 . He defeated the two-term incumbent Sidney Sanders McMath in the primary. He then overwhelmed the Republican candidate, Jefferson W. Speck, 342,292 (87.4 percent) to 49,292 ((12.6 percent), who had also lost to McMath in the 1950 general election. Speck (December 4, 1916-January 30, 1993) was a planter and businessman from Frenchmans Bayou in Mississippi County in eastern Arkansas. At the time of his death, he was living in Kerrville in the Texas Hill Country. In a post-election statement, Speck said that the GOP had done nothing to assist his two gubernatorial campaigns. He further alleged that the Arkansas GOP would "never fully develop and take its place in Arkansas politics under its present leadership. . . . The same tired old men old in ideas, old in hopes will still keep a death grip on southern Republicanism." (Little Rock Arkansas Democrat, November 5, 1952)
Cherry's administration was responsible for establishing the Department of Finance and Administration and promoted industrial development. When Cherry ran for a second term, he was defeated in a runoff primary by Orval Eugene Faubus of Madison County. Faubus then defeated the Republican Pratt C. Remmel, the mayor of Little Rock, to win the first of his six terms as governor. In that race, former GOP nominee Jefferson Speck endorsed Faubus to protest the state party leadership.
In his scrapbook memoirs Down From the Hills, Faubus tells a story of having checked into a motel in El Reno, Oklahoma, in 1954, while he was en route on a family trip to Colorado, after having defeated Cherry in the runoff. The motel clerk told Faubus that the Cherrys were an "old-line Republican family" in Oklahoma, but "some fellow beat him this last time." When Cherry ran for office, he sought the governorship as a Democrat at a time when Arkansas had virtully no Republican presence. Cherry's Democratic label did not keep Eisenhower from naming him to the SACB.
In 1963, Cherry underwent a heart operation in Houston. He was thereafter unable to devote full time to his duties but had gone to his office in Washington, D.C., several times a week. He died in Washington. The first of two funeral services was held at his home in Washington. Then the body was transported to Little Rock to lie in state in the rotunda of the Arkansas State Capitol. Services were also held at the First Presbyterian Church of Jonesboro. Interment was in the Oaklawn Cemetery in Jonesboro.
Cherry was married to the former Margaret Frierson (1912-1990), originally of Jonesboro. They had two sons, Haskille Cherry (1940-2007) and Francis Cherry, Jr., and a daughter, Charlotte Cherry, then all of Washington, D.C. Margaret and older son, Haskille Cherry, were living in Williamsburg, Virginia, at the time of their deaths.
Governor Faubus and President Johnson were particularly magnanimous in their public statements of mourning on Cherry's death. Faubus said that his former rival rendered "fine service". Johnson said that Cherry left "a rich legacy of accomplishment . . . I particularly want to extend my sympathy to his family and dear ones and to the countless citizens of Arkansas who have lost in his passing a distinguished leader and a native son whose devotion to constitutional principles and human dignity won him the confidence and admiration of all who knew him."
"Francis A. Cherry, Governor in '53-55, Dies in Washington", Arkansas Gazette, July 16, 1965
"Cherry Left 'Rich Legacy', President Says", Arkansas Gazette, July 16, 1965
"Rendered 'Fine Service', Says Faubus", Arkansas Gazette, July 16, 1965
Orval Eugene Faubus, Down From the Hills (Little Rock, 1980)