When Rush Harding III talks about Junior Achievement, the education nonprofit for which the Crews & Associates founding partner has served as benefactor and from which he will receive a Legacy Award on May 27, it’s not long before the subject transitions to his Delta upbringing and connection to JA/Arkansas founder Sheffield Nelson.
Since his days as an all-star athlete at Clarendon High in the early 1970s, Harding’s plan was to follow the trail of breadcrumbs left by Nelson, a fellow Monroe County native who was close to the Harding family and to whom Rush looked up.
“He put a stamp of excellence on everything he did,” Harding said of Nelson.
Indeed, the young Harding watched as Nelson excelled at nearby Brinkley High, both as student body president and a standout athlete, all while maintaining an after-school job to help support his family. He eventually became the student government president at what’s now the University of Central Arkansas. After graduation from UCA, Nelson went to work — at the behest of Witt Stephens — for Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co., then known as Arkla and now better known as CenterPoint Energy.
He worked his way up the ranks, attending law school at night. And at age 32, Nelson was handpicked by Stephens to become the youngest CEO of a public utility in the country. Harding, meanwhile, recognized a template when he saw one.
“Sheffield was mentoring me, maybe not even consciously, in those early years, but in terms of how he was a leader in his school, how he was a leader on the athletic teams, everything he did,” Harding said. “I wanted to be like that.”
Right down to their support of JA and its mission of promoting financial and economic literacy in schools, Harding followed that path. Nelson brought Junior Achievement to Arkansas in 1987, and Harding was a disciple of its message from the get-go. The son of teachers in Clarendon (his dad was also the football coach and is a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame), he appreciated the value of education from an early age.
Harding recognized that for many, education represented the only ticket out of the Delta, which was by then becoming depopulated and impoverished, as mechanization required fewer bodies to work the farms.
“In my graduating class of 52, maybe five kids went to college,” Harding said. “I had a great advantage over most kids because my mom and dad were educators and believed in education. I love the Delta, and it’s a great place to live and raise your family. But if you ever want to be able to transcend the financial limitations that are put upon you by being from that part of the state, education is the way you’re going to do it.”
Like Nelson in Brinkley, Harding was a star athlete in Clarendon and student body president. But his path to UCA took a detour north when he accepted a commission to the United States Military Academy.
“I loved West Point, but knew I didn’t want to be a soldier,” Harding said. “I thought I was going to college but found out I was joining the Army. I was in the Army getting an education and not just going off to college. So, I resigned my commission and transferred to UCA, where I’d always wanted to go.”
Harding’s been a strong supporter of Junior Achievement and education in general since graduating from UCA and landing in Little Rock under the wing of financier Adron Crews in 1979. One of seven founding partners at Crews & Associates, Harding was determined to emulate Nelson and rise in the ranks of the Little Rock business community. And just like Nelson, Harding gave back as he ascended.
And now, at its annual awards luncheon, Junior Achievement of Arkansas will recognize Harding for “exceptional leadership” in promoting education. Also receiving Legacy awards are Anne Marie Doramus of Arkansas Bolt and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. Plus, Dr. Gary Arnold of Little Rock Christian Academy is the Educator Award honoree. And Centennial Bank is the winner of the Nelson Summit Award, recognizing a business that shows a commitment to education.
Over the decades, Harding’s enthusiastic philanthropy has benefitted the likes of UCA, Hendrix College, Philander Smith College, Pulaski Academy, Easter Seals, Habitat for Humanity, the Methodist Foundation for Arkansas, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and more. UCA recently announced a $3 million estate gift, the latest of many, from Harding and his wife, Linda. The 2021 gift is part of the school’s latest fundraising campaign, which seeks to raise $100 million by 2024.
Harding was named a UCA distinguished alumnus in 2007, again following in Nelson’s footsteps. In 1986, Nelson was a part of the school’s first distinguished alum class. Now 80, Nelson is retired with wife, Mary Lynn, in Little Rock. In 2019, he told Arkansas Money & Politics that he hopes JA has a lasting impact.
“I think education is such a key to life. That’s what pushed me. I didn’t become president of Arkla until I’d finished my degrees and worked my way through the ranks,” Nelson said. “My education provided such a great boost to me in moving up in the company. I think that will hold true for a lot of Arkansans. An education is something that has to be pushed hard.
That’s got to be a major strength for Arkansas to grow the state economically.”
Harding believes it takes just one “committed educator” to make a difference in the life of a young student.
“There are too many educators who just show up,” he said. “There’s no one more underpaid than a great teacher and nobody more overpaid than a bad one. And a lot of times, teachers just write kids off and don’t think they can learn. But the only way you’re ever going to change the economics of rural Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, the only way you’re ever going to change the fundamental economies of those areas, is one kid at a time.”
He’s seen one educator make such a difference in his own hometown. In 2011, the Teach for America program sent Jeremy Rogoff to Clarendon for a two-year assignment teaching high-school algebra and Spanish. Rogoff now is the CEO and co-founder of Philadelphia’s Kickup, which provides professional learning for teachers.
But before he headed back to his native Pennsylvania, Rogoff challenged his Clarendon students to meet certain goals. The carrot was a trip to New York City, for which he hoped to raise money for expenses. And the students delivered. One hundred percent of his algebra students passed the state’s end-of-course assessment, and 100 percent of his Spanish students passed the New York Regents Proficiency Exam. These achievements set district records and surpassed previous passage rates by 40 percent.
Rogoff took 28 students from rural Arkansas to New York on a $43,000 budget funded through more than 200 private gifts and support from charitable foundations.
“He was determined that every one of those kids was going to succeed,” Harding said. “He was going to break the trend. Who would ever dream of trying to put that together?”
Tonya Villines, executive director of JA/Arkansas, believes that’s the kind of commitment students deserve. She’s seen it exhibited through Monroe County’s own in Harding and Nelson.
“One of the greatest challenges of leadership is making vision stick,” she said. “Vision doesn’t have much adhesive without constant care and attention. Sheffield has promoted inspiration, passion, enthusiasm and commitment throughout Arkansas and made significant impact on economic and youth development. He has a servant heart for contributing to the lives of others, and so does Rush Harding.
“Rush’s commitment to his community and his leadership have established a firm foundation for Arkansans to pursue careers in business and build strong partnerships with the business and education community. Rush has made a profound impact here in Arkansas, and we are grateful for his positive contributions in the communities we serve.”
Since Nelson got the ball rolling in 1987, Junior Achievement of Arkansas has impacted more than 295,000 students. Villines said JA presents a starting point for many students to begin thinking about what their dreams might look like.
“We are committed to inspiring these young people to become independent, competent and career- or college-ready,” she said. “Today, we are providing solutions for schools in the face of COVID-19 by creating pathways, embracing digital programming and creating change to prepare today’s youth for tomorrow’s economy. This is taking us from just delivering a program to providing a pathway for students with badges and certifications.”
JA helps equip the next generation of leaders with knowledge, skills and the capacity to be successful, Villines said. And that includes helping provide higher standards of living and driving economic development — and promoting economic empowerment — in communities across the state.
“Our work can help with a number of societal issues including changing the cycle of poverty, improving education disparity, closing the achievement gap, improving the talent pipeline, increasing youth self-efficacy and promoting equality,” she said.
As his star continued to rise in the Little Rock business community, Harding thinks Nelson looked at him as something like a little brother from Monroe County.
“Then our friendship and respect for each other has grown,” he said. “But the common denominator in that thread of continuity through six decades was mentorship and education. And those are the two primary things that Junior Achievement stands for.”