Johnelle Hunt is a true American icon. Born the daughter of a poultry farmer in Heber Springs in 1932 in the Great Depression, today she is worth $2.3 billion and has become one of the most successful businesswomen in American history.
But being a business tycoon was never part of her plan. All she ever wanted was to take care of her family and home, but Johnnie, her husband of 54 years, and the legendary founder of J. B. Hunt, one of the country’s largest trucking companies, had other ideas.
The couple met one evening when he was driving through Heber Springs and offered a ride to Johnelle and her friends — the Dirty Dozen, they called themselves. Johnelle’s friend rode up front with Johnnie, but Johnelle was so taken with the dashing young man that when he passed through town the next night she outran all her friends so that she could sit next to him. She bore the wrath of her friend, who didn’t speak to her for several days afterward, but she got her man.
Johnnie proposed to Johnelle on their way to her high school graduation with a small diamond ring he had bought with $80 borrowed from his aunt. Johnnie would later buy Johnelle a ring with a significantly larger diamond, something more befitting a multimillionaire’s wife, but to this day Johnelle treasures the simple ring with the tiny diamond, because she knows how hard Johnnie had to work to pay it off.
“He grew up picking cotton,” says Johnelle. “He wasn’t afraid of hard work. He and Johnny Cash used to pick cotton together as kids, later on Johnny and June would come up and stay with us from time to time.”
Johnelle also recounts seeing John F. Kennedy at a luncheon for the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam on Oct. 3, 1963, just weeks before his assassination. And when I compliment her on some beautiful Bedouin jewelry hanging on the wall in her stylish living room, she explains that it was a gift from a visiting Saudi prince after Johnelle saved the day by lending his wife a dress for a wedding they were suddenly invited to.
Such remarkable stories are just part and parcel of Johnelle’s more-incredible-than-fiction life. Yet, despite her great fortune, she is still the most down-to-earth, kind-hearted Southern woman you could ever hope to meet, not to mention one of the friendliest. When we arrive at her Rogers home for our interview and photo shoot, she immediately apologizes for making us drive all the way to her from Little Rock. She had hoped to save us the journey by coming to us, but her grueling schedule wouldn’t allow it.
At 84, Johnelle is still the beating heart of the Hunt empire. As we choose which clothes to photograph her in, her cellphone dings constantly with text messages. “Sorry about that,” she says. “We are working on a mining operation in Honduras, so people need me to make decisions.” When I speak with Johnelle just a few weeks later, she has already sold that company.
Her vitality and joie de vivre are astonishing. When asked if she gets tired of it all she says, “well, yes, but I promised Johnnie I’d look after things.”
Her husband died on Dec. 7, 2006, from injuries sustained in a fall six days earlier. To say that Johnelle was bereft would be quite an understatement. She had lost her lifelong partner and best friend. But she forced herself to carry on building Johnnie’s dream, and it is what drives her to keep going every day.
Johnnie had big dreams despite his humble background. He started his own hugely successful chicken litter company using rice hulls in 1961 in Stuttgart, but Johnelle says he’d had the idea 15 years before it started. “All those years it was just an idea while he was a truck driver. We started selling stock so we could raise enough money to start the business. From the time we married I did not work because he worked odd hours. I was fortunate enough to take care of my kids and my house. When we started our own business he asked me to help out part time. I would type letters to potential customers and financial statements.”
Johnelle recounts how she really wanted to be a full-time mother and homemaker, but Johnnie must have seen her business potential and her magical way with people.
“At the time my son was 7 and my daughter was 11. They were in school, so Johnnie wanted me full time on the business. Then we started buying trucks in Rogers in 1969, before taking over a trucking company there. We moved there in 1972. The one thing I did not want was to move. But Johnnie promised me that if we moved I did not have to work.”
However, on arrival to Rogers Johnelle realized that the truckloads of company paperwork that had been moved from Stuttgart were in disarray and wouldn’t make sense to the new team, so she decided to go in for just a few weeks to get everything organized and orient the new employees. That was 42 years ago, and she has been working full time ever since.
“I did shipping and generally anything that needed to be done. I also did the hiring, but that was when we were smaller. I always collected the money.” She laughs and says, “I always say that Johnnie was the man in the white hat (he wore a trademark white cowboy hat) and I was the wicked witch. He came into work in the morning and would go round speaking to everyone in the company. He would pat people on the shoulder and let them know they were doing a good job and he was glad they were there. He did a good job with communicating with people. Then he would come to our office and tell me what certain people were doing wrong so that I would go and address it. If someone asked Johnnie a question and the answer was going to be a no, he would say, ‘you have to speak to Johnelle about that.’ ”
Was he making her the bad cop? She laughs and says, “I was just doing what Johnnie needed me to do; it was my job and my responsibility. We always liked getting everyone’s opinion and we wanted everyone to feel like they had an input, anyone could come and talk to us.”
Johnelle speaks at length about her truckers and her staff. The caring she feels for each individual is palpable. “I know how hard it is for the drivers, they are away so much and often miss family occasions. I have been the wife of a trucker myself, so I would often speak to their wives if they were upset. Or if a driver had a problem on the road that they couldn’t sort out themselves they knew they could call me. I had a landline installed next to my bed so that I could help them any time, day or night.”
Today J. B. Hunt has about 10,000 trucks, 70,000 containers/trailers and 11,000 drivers, but Johnelle still goes to meet as many as she can. “I really care about the people. It has gotten so large now, but I love to go and see everyone, I really enjoy it. Being with the drivers is one of my favorite things. We hold a big celebration for each driver when they pass a landmark distance like 100,000 miles.”
When asked what she is proudest of, she says: “I’m proud of everything about my family and all the people we work with. Some have been with us since the beginning. Some people came there right out of high school and college and now are retired.”
Inevitably for such a big-hearted woman, philanthropy is a huge part of Johnelle’s life, as it was for Johnnie. “We have always been this way, and I learned this from my parents because they went through the Depression. I went to school with children that didn’t even have a lunch to bring, so my parents would help out feeding kids. It’s just a thrill to help people, and there’s a reason why people are put in front of you. When Johnnie retired, he started drawing out his Social Security pension and people would say, “he is so rich, he doesn’t need it.” But he would carry his Social Security money in an envelope in his pocket and by the end of the month he would have given it all away to people who were in need.”
On Oct. 13, Johnelle will be honored by the Children’s Advocacy of Central Arkansas as a “Woman of Inspiration.” In her typical, humble manner she says, “I don’t know why they chose me, there are so many more people who deserve to be honored, who have done so much more than I have, but I said that if it will help then I would do it. You pick up newspapers and read about a child that is being abused or hurt, and as I learned more about it I realized how much we need this organization and what great things they do. Having events like this will raise money and awareness, and there are children out there who really need that help.”