Around 1,000 people applauded the philanthropic contributions of Johnelle Hunt as she humbly accepted the Rogers-Lowell Chamber of Commerce Good Neighbor Award on Friday Night (March 14) at the Hammons Convention Center in Rogers. It was the 92nd Annual Chamber Banquet for Rogers-Lowell and virtually the entire night was dedicated to Hunt.

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, presented Hunt with the award saying he was honored to recognize “one of our country’s national treasures, Johnelle Hunt.”

Womack shared some “inside baseball” recalling those first meetings that occurred with J.B. and Johnelle and partners shortly after the turn of the new millennium.

“Something truly remarkable happened, a transformation of a community of unprecedented quality that people will talk about for a long time, indeed forever. It was all possible because of a great partnership between a few stakeholders including this special lady and her late husband,” Womack said.

He said it was June 23, 2003, when talk began about the development of Pinnacle Promenade that would be a 300,000-square-foot shopping district. At that time it was slated to go where the World Trade Center is located today. Womack said in that meeting a man named Dillard told the partners the dream wasn’t big enough. He looked out across the highway toward to the 400 acres of the Rife farm and asked who owned that land. J.B. and Johnelle owned 200 acres of it, zoned residential. Womack said Dillard told the group to dream bigger, and use 1 million to 2 million square feet amid that pasture land.

Womack said that was validation needed to spark the investment that would forever change the face of Rogers from a bedroom community into the retail center it has become.

“We lost Mr. Hunt tragically in 2006, and this dear lady could have cashed in her chips and felt the sand through her toes in Destin, Fla., for the rest of her life. But, she wanted to carry on the work. A lot has happened and much more will happen as a result of her vision and leadership to this community,” Womack said.

“This is truly an honor for me. If Johnny could just be here standing beside me, because he is the one who started it all. I just always tried to follow along and keep it going. … People in Northwest Arkansas gave us our start, we owe a lot to this region,” Hunt said.

She said in 1960 they were living in Little Rock and he was a truck driver. Johnelle said he drove up here one Saturday and met some of the people and went home and told her that they might have to sell pencils on the corner, but they were going to live here one day.

“It was 12 years later we moved here and there were times starting our trucking company I thought we would be out there selling those pencils. But, it never came to that,” Hunt said.

She recalled the loans J.B. Hunt secured from Northwest Arkansas poultry leaders back in 1960 to launch his first trucking firm.

“People in the region, Bill Simmons, Red Hudson, Gene George, Lloyd Peterson and others stepped up to help to help us start the business years ago. We are forever grateful. We also are thankful to the cities and chambers who continue to work with Hunt Ventures on our development projects. There is still more work to do in this wonderful community,” Hunt said.

Head Razorback football Coach Brett Bielema showed up in a leather jacket toting a dozen red roses which he and wife Jennifer presented to Hunt during the dinner.  Bielema said he was out on a date night with his wife, but wanted to stop by and thank Hunt for all the contributions to the University of Arkansas and region as a whole.

He joked that his name was scratched from this year’s honor after last year’s losing record. He then read a statement.

“In all seriousness, UA Chancellor David Gearhart has this say to about Hunt: ‘Johnelle is one of the most gracious and generous people I know. She is thoughtful, very smart, kind and considerate and a joy to be around. Jane and I are so blessed to have her as a dear friend. She loves her community and has been so generous to many charitable endeavors, including the University of Arkansas, where she has an honorary degree. At the same time she is a very savvy business woman who wields considerable influence on the business community throughout Arkansas. She is literally one of the finest people I have ever had the privilege of knowing.  Her legacy as one of Arkansas’ true gems is very, very strong.’”

Hunt’s philanthropy has varied from arts to education, business and health care.

“Ms. Hunt has been a great friend to Washington Regional and a generous supporter of a variety of healthcare projects, events and initiatives through Washington Regional Medical Foundation,” said Bill Bradley, Washington Regional president and CEO. “Her gifts to Washington Regional Cancer Support Home, hospice services and capital projects such as the North Hills expansion campaign have greatly enhanced our ability to provide compassionate, high-quality healthcare throughout Northwest Arkansas. Most notably, the Johnelle Hunt Women’s Center reflects her personal commitment to bettering the health of women and children. We are grateful to Ms. Hunt for her leadership, vision and passion for addressing healthcare needs in our community.”

Peter Lane, president of the Walton Arts Center, thanked Hunt for the generous annual gifts that allow school children to regularly visit the Walton Arts Center. He said the Walton Arts Center was one of the first initiatives that helped the region unite. Hunt’s contributions include land and financial gifts for the new Walmart AMP under construction in Rogers. It will be the state’s largest outdoor music amphitheater. She has also agreed to serve as an honorary chair of the capital campaign for WAC’s expansion of its Fayetteville facility.

“She just keeps on giving,” Lane said. “Johnelle, it seems that you are a porter just like all those J.B. Hunt trucks we see going up and down the highways; and like the tagline for your company, we want to know what is your next move.”

Hunt said in 1972 the company (J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc.) was looking for a place to build it’s corporate offices in Northwest Arkansas. They chose Lowell because it had the cheapest land prices.

“When we did our road show taking J.B.Hunt Transport public people across the world  wanted to know why Lowell? Where is Lowell? Johnny told them it was a universal city. We helped to put Lowell, Arkansas ,on the map,” Hunt said.

Hunt worked for the company in those early years helping to collect payments and keep the finances straight. She served as the corporate secretary until 2008. At her retirement event, company executives applauded her service, crediting her with keeping the firm solvent in those early years.

She admitted that her method of collecting payment from vendors worked. Hunt said when a bill was past due and they didn’t make payment arrangements, she called their mothers.

Much of Hunt’s $2.1 billion of wealth is linked to her stock in J.B. Hunt Transport Services, which she continues to share with Northwest Arkansas through her real estate development of the Pinnacle Hills area in Rogers and numerous philanthropic contributions from the new Amazeum in Bentonville to Washington Regional Hospital.

Story and photos by Kim Souza of The City Wire Staff