Arkansas businesswoman Johnelle Hunt recently sat down with Arkansas Money & Politics’ Evin Demirel to discuss, among other things, the experiences she and her late husband, J.B. Hunt, had with Central High desegregation crisis, the role of corporations in Arkansas public education, and her support of the Springdale High football program.
Q: When it comes to education or early childhood education … what role do you feel like corporations should play, or in your case, do play?
A: I think J.B. Hunt Transport, for one thing, that have this big thing that they do with children in schools, drivers going to schools… They support schools by going to elementary and so forth and helping the kids and that kind of thing. And Johnnie and I have just always been – we’re very much into education. He … just went to the 7th grade in a one-room school … So he had to drop out of school and start cutting timber in that part of the country. His uncle had a sawmill in Edgemont…
It had the railroad that ran through it, so it was more of a thriving community at one time, but it’s still there. He had to quit school, so he very much believed everybody should have an education. We have a school in Springdale. It’s the J.B. Hunt Elementary School. And when they first opened that school, we were able to go and be there for the children … we loved it.
We … were up on the stage and each class would come on stage and do a little presentation, give us gifts and it was so great. [Later] We had been to Dallas, and we were coming back, and we flew right over the school.
We had such a view down low because we flew into Springdale … and Johnnie said, “Johnelle, I want us to go back to the school and see the children.” And I said, “We will.” He said, “No I want us to go back now. I really want us to put that on our schedule.” And I said, “Okay, we’ll do that,” and that was on Monday and on Saturday he fell.
The hospital in Springdale was so good to us. They gave us a great big room, and we had so many people there all the time, all during the day. This big room was just full of people. He fell on Saturday and on Monday (the students) brought us a big box of cards and all these children – every child in that school had taken construction paper and made cards for him …
And I know one card said, “Mr. Hunt, I fell one day and hit my head, and I know how bad it hurts.” And those cards got us through those five days, because everybody who would come in would read those cards. It was the sweetest thing. It meant to me that those children knew what was going on with him and they cared.
I would hear the remarks like, “Well, I go to J.B. Hunt’s school,” like they think he owns the school or something. Little children, they’re just so sweet and they just think in the simplest of terms. Then, when he passed away, they brought me another big box of cards. And you know those are treasures, they are just treasures to me. …
I went once and read to the children, and I’m scheduled to go back in just a few weeks…
Q: How did the school come to be named for your husband?
A: We gave a gift to the Springdale schools, and then they gave him [naming rights]. That’s one thing about Springdale. Their schools … are named after the people of the area. And when we moved here, we moved to Springdale and lived in Springdale for 17 years, and so we’ve always been very connected to Springdale, very connected. … We have a ranch east of [Fayetteville], about seven miles. So our address is a Fayetteville address, and then we have a home in this [Rogers] area.
I have a brother that’s a [Springdale High] coach – has been a coach for many years. He’s now off the coaching staff, but he’s still involved in the Springdale school system. He’s a younger brother, he’s 17 years younger than I am, so he’s still able to go to work every day like that. So I really support Springdale athletics, because that’s what he’s always been involved in. And I may get a call, and he’ll say, “We’re going to so and so across the state, and we’d sure like a nice bus to go on,” and I am so thankful that I can say, “Get the bus.”
I’m just blessed that I can turn around and say, “You get that for them. …”
Q: Most the programs are blessed in that way, they do have people who support them.
A: I know of other people that do the same thing. They know who – let’s take them to dinner before the game or something like that. There are people all over that will step up and say, “Yeah, I’ll pay for them to do that …”
Q: Let’s talk about Hunt Ventures… When Johnnie passed away, he had something like 89 projects in motion.
A: That’s about it.
Q: (Are) there a number of projects in motion at this point?
A: Just recently in the last few weeks, we did sell the rock quarry in Honduras. That was just a new project that was just getting off – he had bought the equipment, he had the place for the quarry, the land and everything like that. It hadn’t really come out of the ground hardly when he passed away.
At that time, I felt like these are projects he had started I have to carry on. So I tried to carry on with the Honduras project, and we shipped out of there, we shipped into Florida and Louisiana, those coastal areas. And so we’ve operated that for a long time, but it’s a long way away, and it’s a lot to deal withl. It’s so far away – different government, different challenges. Real, real challenges.
So that was one that I was really ready to say, “I don’t need to be doing this anymore.” Then we had drilling rigs in Texas. When he passed away, he had ordered three drilling rigs. And the reason he ordered them, he was so excited about what was going to happen in Arkansas with our [natural] gas drilling. So his plan really was … to buy these drilling rigs and to start drilling in Arkansas. We were so thrilled about the people that were living on these farms and all, and rural areas that had had challenges always about making a living…
Because he was excited about that, he had ordered three drilling rigs My first thought in the hospital, was, “I can’t do that. I’m going to let them sell those rigs. I can’t take on that, there’s already so much other stuff to do.” And while he was there … people came to me and said, “We have a rig ready to go. What do you want to do?” And … I thought I (would) say “No.” I said, “Can we get a contract.” And they said, “Yes.” And I said, “We’ll give it a try.” Then number two comes along. “Can we get a contract?” “We’ll give it a try”. I ended up with six, and at six, I kinda drew the line.
But after a time, the drilling starts slowing down … we started putting some out in the middle of Odessa – drilling for oil out there – then the gas. And so it was better for us to just to move them all out there, have them at one location. And so we had already moved out of Arkansas way back several years before it really slowed down as much as it has.
We’d been drilling in the middle of Odessa, and we were doing well. We’d built a new office, nice facilities, but that has all slowed down too. So everybody drilling out there … those rigs were parked. So we kinda held on longer than most people, I think, because we kept trying to keep the people working. That’s what it was all about – let’s keep the people working.
We finally reached the point where it was not the smart thing for us to do, so we have now pulled our rigs in. We keep people there to keep them maintained. When it comes back, which one day it will, we’ll have some nice rigs that’ll be ready to go back to work.
Q: How long were you operating in Arkansas?
A: We started operating in Arkansas in ’07, and we just probably operated in Arkansas for two years maybe … We only had two [rigs] that operated in Arkansas, but by the time the next four came off, we felt that [Odessa] was the best place to put them. So we did that. …
My main focus right now is on developing Pinnacle Hills (cemetery) … We have a big mortar plant in Muskogee, Oklahoma, that we just kinda had the groundbreaking on [when he passed]. We make packaged mortar, colored mortar, it’s all automated. You can buy any color you want, or used to – they get the cement and they mix the color in there…
The transcripts are lightly edited for clarity.