What is a legend?
Words like inspiration, pioneer, best ever and role model come to mind. Catherine Johnson, development counsel for the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation, believes all of those words also describe Judy McReynolds, chairwoman, president and chief executive officer of ArcBest Corp. in Fort Smith. Johnson talked about McReynolds in a recent telephone interview from her office in Little Rock.
"Judy is a remarkable pioneer in a typically male-dominated profession," Johnson said of McReynolds, one of very few women leading major U.S. companies and the only female in charge of a publicly owned company in Arkansas. That makes McReynolds a role model setting an example for other women, Johnson said.
"As more women enter the workforce, it really sort of sets the bar for them to achieve what Judy has achieved," Johnson said.
That's why the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation has chosen to honor McReynolds at this year's Legends dinner at 7 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Fort Smith Convention Center, 800 Rogers Ave. The evening will begin with a reception at 6 p.m.
Several speakers — Cathy Gates with Ernst & Young in Tulsa, U.S. Sen. John Boozman and Curt Bradbury of Stephens Inc. — will be on hand to talk about their own relationships with McReynolds and why they think she is deserving of the name "legend," Johnson said. The goal is to shine a light on the accomplishments of someone who can be an inspiration to others, Johnson said.
"When we say 'legend,' we are really honoring someone for their career and what they've stood for professionally," Johnson said. Past recipients of the Legends honor include Gov. Asa Hutchinson; Randy Veach, longtime president of Arkansas Farm Bureau; philanthropist Mrs. Pat Walker; Frank Broyles, former University of Arkansas athletics director; and the late Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt.
"(Legends have) reached the pinnacle of their careers," Johnson said. "I think every person over the past six years can definitely say that at the time (the foundation) honored them, they were at the top of what they do."
"It is truly an honor to be recognized by the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation," McReynolds said in an emailed statement. "Brandon was a person of great character who valued his faith and his family. These values are also very important in my life. I admire the incredible work Marty and Vickie Burlsworth do through the foundation to honor Brandon’s legacy. The foundation's programs, such as 'Burls Kids' and 'Eyes of a Champion,' have an invaluable impact on our youth."
In addition to honoring McReynolds for her achievements, the evening serves as a fundraiser for the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation, named for the former Razorback offensive lineman known for his thick-framed black glasses. Burlsworth started with the Razorbacks as a walk-on in 1995, became an All-American player in 1998 and was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1999. Just a few weeks later, Burlsworth was killed in a traffic accident. The foundation that bears his name continues to honor excellent high school and college athletes, support the physical and spiritual needs of children and recognize those who "Do it the Burls way," a phrase coined by former Arkansas head football coach Houston Nutt. The phrase means to "do the right thing, even when no one is looking," according to the foundation's website.
The goal of the foundation is to "reach out and support children who are underserved," Johnson said. Typically that means children who come from low-income families or single-parent homes, children who might feel left behind or miss out on opportunities other children take for granted. For instance, the foundation's Burls Kids program makes Razorback football tickets available to a number of children who might not otherwise have the chance to see a football game in person. That extends to sending children to an Indianapolis Colts game during the winter holidays each year, too, Johnson said.
Another way the foundation helps students in need is with scholarships for high school athletes and for college-bound athletes in conjunction with the University of Arkansas Athletic Foundation, Johnson said. That program has been expanded in recent years to include the Burlsworth Walk-On award available to college athletes nationwide. And the newest award the foundation makes, established last year, is the Burlsworth Character award, honoring high school athletes for sportsmanship, Johnson said.
The Eyes of a Champion program provides free eye exams for area school children. The foundation works with school districts across the state to identify children who might need corrective lenses but are not able to afford eye care. School officials give eligible students a voucher from the foundation for the exams, Johnson said. Then the students who do need eyeglasses receive the frames and lenses through the foundation's partnership with Walmart Optical.
The goal here is to ensure students can see properly so they have a better chance at learning, and the lesson again comes directly from Brandon Burlsworth, whose own vision problems remained undiagnosed until he was in college, Johnson said.
Currently, the Eyes of a Champion program is available only to Arkansas students, but plans are in the works to expand into neighboring states later this year with the intent of eventually going nationwide, Johnson said. Eyes of a Champion and Walmart have given away 1,000 pairs of eyeglasses annually for the past eight years, Johnson said, and they are in hopes to make that number 1,500 annually soon.
For more information about the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation or to purchase tickets for the Legends dinner honoring Judy McReynolds, go to Brandon Burlsworth.org.