HOD Honors Chambers, Clarke Nanyonga and Harris

Hall of Distinction Honors John Ed Chambers, III

John Chambers
John Chambers

Few American families have a longer track record of leadership at a single institution of higher education than the one built by the Chambers family of Danville at Arkansas Tech University.

As the most recent standard bearer of that tradition, John Ed Chambers III exemplifies the connection between educational opportunities and economic development that his grandfather and father promoted.

Chambers served as a trustee from 1994-99 and 2007-17, continuing a family tradition that dates back almost a century. His grandfather, Judge John Ed Chambers, was a member of the board from 1925-37, 1939-53 and 1955-63. His father, John Ed Chambers II, was an Arkansas Tech trustee from 1965-67 and 1987-88.

“He had tremendous respect for his grandfather and his father,” said Mike Donnell, president of Chambers Bank, when asked about John Ed Chambers III. “Them being on the (ATU) Board of Trustees has given him the desire to help Tech and to help the communities that he does business in. He could live anywhere in the world that he wanted to. He’s chosen to live in his hometown, and he chooses to do business in this area. It’s been great for our town, our county, the adjoining counties and the State of Arkansas.”

The nearly quarter-century span of John Ed Chambers III’s service on the ATU Board of Trustees transformed the institution.

Structures such as the Ross Pendergraft Library and Technology Center, Doc Bryan Student Services Center, Baswell Techionery, Baswell Residence Hall, M Street Residence Hall, Rothwell Hall, Brown Hall, the Student Services and Conference Center in Ozark and the Health Sciences and Wellness Building in Ozark were constructed during Chambers’ tenure on the ATU Board of Trustees. Enrollment more than doubled. Dozens of new academic programs were developed.

Chambers has experienced similar success in his business career. He serves as chief executive officer for Chambers Bank, which is based in his hometown of Danville. Founded by his grandfather in 1930 as Danville State Bank, Chambers Bank operates more than 25 branches throughout Arkansas.

Under Chambers’ leadership, Chambers Bank has grown from $10 million in assets to more than $1 billion in assets as of February 2020.

“He is a person that people want to work for,” said Donnell, who was first employed by Chambers when he mowed his lawn at the age of 11. “Johnny is very good with people. He treats people like he would want to be treated. I’ve seen it my entire life, and it’s made me want to work for him. He is a true leader.”

That leadership is recognized by the naming of Chambers Cafeteria at ATU in honor of all three generations who have served the institution.

“Johnny has a tremendous work ethic,” said Donnell. “His dad wanted Johnny to be the first person at work and the last one to leave. It worked. When his decisions are made, they put people first. Whether it be for a student, an employee or our board of directors, he’s always thinking about the people who are behind the scenes.”

It’s a life philosophy that made an impression on another Yell County native—Tom Kennedy, who served alongside Chambers on the ATU Board of Trustees.

“As a young man growing up in Danville, it impressed me that I knew people who had supported Arkansas Tech enough to have a building named after their family,” said Kennedy at the re-dedication of Chambers Cafeteria in 2014. “I remember asking my dad, why does the Chambers family support Arkansas Tech like they do? He told me they’ve been supporting Arkansas Tech for generations because they understand so many Tech students are first-generation students. They love the Arkansas River Valley, they love Yell County and they know for this area to have a shot at having a strong economy with a strong, educated workforce, you need a strong Arkansas Tech University.”

Hall of Distinction Honors Dr. Rose Clarke Nanyonga

Rose Clark Nanyonga
Rose Clark Nanyonga

Rose Clarke Nanyonga had a vision for improving access to healthcare in her homeland of Uganda. She had the determination to drive the cultural shift necessary to fulfill her vision.

When she arrived at Arkansas Tech University to pursue her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, Nanyonga found the perfect environment to nurture her dreams and channel her grit.

“I think that caring is innate in her,” said Dr. Rebecca Burris, long-time professor of nursing at ATU and head of the ATU Department of Nursing. “It’s a big vision to think that you, as one nurse, could make a difference in the health of an entire country.”

After graduating from Arkansas Tech in 2002, Nanyonga built upon that foundation by earning a Master of Science in Nursing degree from Baylor University and her Doctor of Philosophy degree in nursing from Yale University.

Today, Nanyonga serves as vice chancellor at Clarke International University in Uganda, where she has enhanced access to educational opportunities in the healthcare industry.

“More than half of the Bachelor of Science-degreed nurses in Uganda came under the guidance of Rose Clarke Nanyonga,” said Chuck Gordon, who attended church with Nanyonga when she was residing in Russellville and has remained in contact with her over the years. “That, to me, is a huge accomplishment. She could have stayed in the United States. She had two tenure-track professorships offered to her when she graduated from Yale. She chose to go back to Uganda because the need there is so much greater. It’s a daunting problem.”

According to data from the World Health Organization, the average life expectancy in Uganda is 60 years for males and 65 for females. The maternal mortality rate per 100,000 live births is 343, which is approximately five times the rate in the United States. The situation is, however, improving. Uganda’s maternal mortality rate at the beginning of the 21st century was 578 per 100,000 live births.

Nanyonga’s work is about more than a healthier Uganda. It is also about improved quality of life for the women of her nation.

“She is teaching young, black women to have a trade and a skill that gives them an above-average income,” said Gordon. “She is elevating the status of women and solving the demanding health issues in Uganda. The thing that always struck me about Rose is that she practices the presence of God. That, to me, is the only thing better than her smile…her attitude.”

Gordon recalls how that positive attitude carried over to other phases of Nanyonga’s life when she was studying at Arkansas Tech.

“She lights up the room,” said Gordon. “It’s like a moth to the flame. She also has a beautiful singing voice, and when she spoke we always enjoyed it because she spoke the king’s English with a little bit of an Irish brogue that she got from her adopted father.

“Rose is brilliant,” continued Gordon. “She is also very studious. She didn’t relax in her intellect. She pushed hard to learn and to take advantage of the intellectual skills she has. She didn’t coast through school. She charged through school.”

Stanford University has named Nanyonga a leadership fellow in its Women Leaders in Global Health initiative, while the Yale University School of Nursing has bestowed its Distinguished Alumna award upon her.

“Students come, and they have goals,” said Burris. “Sometimes they achieve those goals. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes their goals change. For Rose, there was one goal, and that was to make a difference in the health of the people from her country. She was very focused on that, and she has stuck to that through her entire educational career and her career as a nurse.”

Hall of Distinction Honors Benny Harris

Benny Harris
Benny Harris

While other Arkansas Tech students were spending their leisure hours at the student center or cheering on the Wonder Boys, Benny Harris was in those same locations, working under the tutelage of Heartsill Bartlett or providing refreshments in the concession stand.

The work ethic he displayed as a 16-year-old freshman allowed Harris to earn his degree and go on to a successful 40-year career in banking.

“Benny loves Arkansas Tech, and he likes to talk about it,” said Roy Reaves, who was Harris’ long-time business partner in the banking industry. “He was appreciative of getting to work on campus, but most of all, he recognized the quality of the professors there. They were responsible for the growth and development that he experienced professionally. Benny realized the value of a good, quality education, and he felt like he got that at Arkansas Tech.”

Harris grew up in Timbo as the third of five children. He earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration with a minor in economics from Arkansas Tech in 1969.

“Coming to Arkansas Tech, earning a degree and being able to put that into practice is something that people from small towns hold in high regard,” said Todd Meimerstorf, an ATU alumnus who grew up in Dover and later worked with Harris in the banking business. “I’m sure that is true of every graduate, but being from a small town…maybe being one of the first from your family to go to college and earn that degree…it’s a very valuable thing.”

A member of the Arkansas Army National Guard from 1969-75, Harris began his career as an Arkansas Department of Human Services manager located in Mountain View with oversight of a 10-county region.

He embarked upon a 40-year banking career in 1974 when he became branch manager for Batesville Saving and Loan in Mountain View. He took positions of increased responsibility and moved first to Batesville and then to Pine Bluff before settling in Russellville in 1992.

Five years later, Harris, Reaves and others were part of the group that founded First Arkansas Valley Bank by merging First Bank of Arkansas and the Bank of Atkins. Harris served as president of the new bank and was part of two more mergers before retiring from Liberty Bank of Arkansas in 2014.

“Benny really has it all,” said Reaves. “He has strong character. He is a man of strong values. He’s extremely bright and talented, and he’s really a hard worker. When you have all of those qualities, there’s really not anything you can’t do. He’s also very methodical, calm in his disposition and humble.

“He is well-read, and he likes to keep up with trends,” continued Reaves. “Benny stayed ahead of the curve. We could make minor changes along the way, and it never appeared dramatic to customers or employees. That was of real value.”

Harris has been active in such non-profit organizations as Downtown Rotary, Salvation Army, Main Street Russellville, Arkansas Children’s Hospital Circle of Friends, Russellville Chamber of Commerce Red Coats Committee, the Arkansas Tech University Foundation Board of Directors and the ATU College of Business Advisory Council. He served two terms as president of the Russellville Area Chamber of Commerce and two ATU scholarships are named in his honor.

“I remember when I started in the banking business at First Bank of Arkansas when I was a sophomore in college, Benny was the president there,” said Meimerstorf, who today serves as market president for Centennial Bank in Russellville. “I remember his humble presence. He was a guy who seemed to be relatable. I was the courier and he was the president, but he was still someone I could talk to. That carried on through other banks where I worked with him. That never changed.”

-Illustrations by Bryan Moats
for the Tech Action, Fall 2020