Few people understand the value of hard work quite like Sheffield Nelson. Having grown up poor in the Arkansas Delta, the 78-year-old retired lawyer, CEO and former gubernatorial candidate has worked hard for everything he’s accomplished in life. That list is long.
by Caleb Talley | Photo by Jamison Mosley
And for the last 30 years, he’s been sharing his story with tens of thousands of students through Junior Achievement, the organization he brought to Arkansas in 1987, in hopes of inspiring the next generation of Arkansans to pursue careers in business and public service.
“I had the advantage of growing up very poor in east Arkansas,” Nelson says. “I grew up in the Delta. I lived in Clarendon, West Helena, Wynne and Brinkley, which is about as Delta as you can get. I felt that it was very important to tell about my background, to tell [students] that if you’ll make an effort and work hard, you’ll have the chance to advance in life. I’ve believed that forever, and I’ve seen it work.”
And the path to success, according to Nelson, begins with education.
“I think the best thing you can do is get an education,” he says. “That’s one thing I encourage. I try to get students interested in the business concepts so they can consider that as a possibility… As a kid, I did not know what I wanted to do when I grew up. I didn’t have anybody talking to me about it. That’s one of the things I thought we could do, through Junior Achievement.”
Nelson’s education began at the Arkansas State Teacher College, now the University of Central Arkansas. He initially majored in pre-engineering and worked his way through.
“I carved me out a niche where I had a job and a work scholarship where I also ran track. I dropped track and got into politics on campus and worked hard through the student union to make more money,” Nelson says. “I then became a mathematics major, which was great training to go to law school as soon as I got out of college. I did a training program for Arkla before I came back and started law school.”
Nelson’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed at Arkla, the Fortune 500 gas company then led by Witt Stephens. He was offered a job right out of school and rose rapidly as a salesman and executive. Stephens even designated him to be his successor, and in 1973, Nelson became president of Arkla at 32 years old.
By the mid-1980s, Nelson began to consider a run for governor. By 1989, the longtime Democrat decided to join the Republican party and announced his bid for the position which was then held by Gov. Bill Clinton. After a tough and sometimes controversial primary fight against Little Rock’s Tommy Robinson, Nelson went on to lose a close general election race to Clinton.
“My only venture into politics was a run for governor,” Nelson says. “It was the only office I ever wanted, and the only one I’d ever run for. I had a lot of encouragement to run for Congress, for Senate. I thought the governor was the one who could
influence the most Arkansans, influence their lives. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s what my business background would have been best applied.
“When I saw I wasn’t going to be able to do that, I continued to work out in public. I tried to help with education and other things I could do on commissions and boards to help Arkansas grow and help Arkansas children. I’ve also always tried to get others involved, Junior Achievement being an example.”
Through their hard work to get elected to state offices in the early 1990s, Nelson and Republican colleague Asa Hutchinson were laying the foundation for which the party stands today. As Nelson ran for governor, Hutchinson ran for attorney general. After their defeats, they determined to focus their energy on building the party.
“We, in the Republican Party, were where the Democrats are today,” Nelson says. “We were so far back, and the Democrats had a stronghold on the state. We had very little chance to win. I was very fortunate to run as well as I did. I had great backing, and it helped build the Republican Party. We turned out an unbelievable number of voters. When I ran against Clinton, people were wondering where my votes came from. Well, we were building the Republican Party.
“Asa Hutchinson ran the same year for Attorney General. Asa and I stayed good friends. He and I agreed that what we needed to do was build the party. We started work as co-chairmen of the Republican Party. It was the first time they ever had co-chairmen. We worked beautifully together… Asa did the lion’s share of the work to build the party in the state. We set the stage to grow the party. People began to see what the Republican Party could do. It set the stage for Republicans to start winning some offices.”
In addition to their efforts, Nelson said the party benefited from great candidates, Hutchinson is one of them. “Asa was the perfect candidate, and he’s done a great job,” he says. “That’s only going to help future Republicans.”
While Nelson’s legacy in business is apparent, he hopes he will be remembered for his work in public service and education through Junior Achievement.
“I hope my legacy will be one of providing leadership and help for future generations of Arkansans,” Nelson says. “I hope Junior Achievement continues to have a lasting impact. We’re in our 32nd year. I doubt that anybody would have thought Junior Achievement would still be here 32 years out. I didn’t think in those terms.
“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,” he adds. “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.”
Outside of Junior Achievement, Nelson continues to serve others by giving of his time and effort, serving on various boards and helping raise funds for worthy causes. He feels it’s his duty to the public.
“I am satisfied in life with what I’m doing,” he says. “I hope to continue doing what I’m doing, contributing to the lives of others and advising young adults… I feel very fortunate and blessed to be raised here in Arkansas. I could not imagine having been as successful doing business and being able to contribute in any other state. Arkansas was at a place where it needed people to step up. I’ve always been accepted with open arms.
“I will continue to pay back as long as I’m here.”