Gwen Moritz

Never More Important

Gwen Moritz Editor's Note

Never More Important
J. Thomas May, chairman of Simmons First Foundation

If you missed last Wednesday’s Arkansas Business of the Year banquet, you missed the feel-good event of the year. And I needed it.

We buried my mother on Monday, a profoundly sad occasion even though she was 87 and dementia had long ago robbed her of what had been a vibrant personality. More tragic was the death last Sunday of Matt DeCample, former Gov. Mike Beebe’s spokesman, who was only 44 and witty and generous to the end.

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Beebe said DeCample “had more friends than anyone I know.” One of them was my 24-year-old son, who, having just lost his grandmother, absorbed DeCample’s death as another personal blow. They had become acquainted through local comedy shows.

Against that backdrop of grief came Tommy May, the inaugural recipient of the Legacy of Leadership award and the living embodiment of hope. More than 13 years after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, May drove his scooter up the ramp of the stage at the Little Rock Marriott so fast that I momentarily thought it might be out of control.

Silly me. Tommy May is many things, but never out of control. George Makris, who succeeded May as CEO of Simmons First National Corp., used other words to describe his mentor: “Thoughtful, detailed, hands-on, deliberate, risk manager, motivational.”

Last week’s audience got to experience the first and last of those attributes: thoughtful and motivational. May’s voice isn’t what it used to be, but he spoke for nearly eight minutes and left us wanting more. After poking fun at himself for a bit, he got down to business:

“I don’t believe people are born leaders. If so, I don’t think I would be here. I had some major challenges in my younger days, and none of it had to do with my medical challenge. It had to do with what’s up here,” he said, tapping himself on the head.

“And it was not until the military got a good hold on me that I began to understand that I wasn’t the boss.

“I do believe that each of us are provided leadership opportunities, either in our home as a father and a mother providing leadership or in our business as we bob up and provide leadership. In community organizations where we have volunteer leaders, or in our church whether it’s a deacon, a Sunday school teacher or whatever.

“I believe that God has provided each of us with certain talents, and it’s up to us how we will use those talents. Leadership is about vision. It’s about planning and providing a road map for our associates to follow. It is about planning your work and working your plan. It’s about helping others grow to be as good as they can be. It’s about establishing a footprint for others to follow.”

May referenced “the Lou Holtz ‘do-right rule,’” and talked about getting his priorities in the right sequence: faith, family, work. “After getting them in the right order, it’s just absolutely amazing how the rest fall into place.”

And he said, with his trademark conviction, that “there has never been a more important time in our nation for caring mentors,” followed by marching orders: “Take it upon yourself. Find somebody doing something good and say something to them. And make a commitment to make a difference in somebody’s life because, again, it’s never been more important.”

(Video of May's speech can be seen in our coverage of the Arkansas Business of the Year awards.)

Another emotional moment at the banquet was when Anna Beth Gorman, executive director of the Arkansas Women’s Foundation, announced that the foundation’s new Gender Equity Award would be named for my mentor, Olivia Myers Farrell, who was CEO of Arkansas Business Publishing Group until she and other stockholders sold it last month to Mitch Bettis, who has been our publisher for six years.

I know of no one who has done more to promote women in the Arkansas business community than Olivia Farrell, and I’m lucky to have been one of her works-in-progress for almost 20 years.

Talk about your slippery slopes. First Arkansas approves medical marijuana — the spotlight industry for this issue of Arkansas Business — and then we start having business events on Wednesday night.

I’m not sure my mother would approve.

Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.

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