The WestStar Leadership Program’s annual graduation ceremony is a traditional event for class members who complete the program, which is sponsored by the University of Tennessee at Martin. However, the 2020-21 WestStar class experience was anything but traditional. Class members graduated Tuesday, June 22, at Madison Downs Venue in Jackson following 18 months in a seven-month program.
The class began in-person sessions in December 2019, transitioned to virtual sessions through June 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then resumed meeting in person in March of this year to complete the program. In addition to the first-ever virtual WestStar sessions, members also stayed connected through a new virtual WestStar series named Zoom Leadership: Looking Through Zoom Lenses. The series welcomed both current class members and WestStar alumni to hear featured presenters that included Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd and Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett.
“While the continuity was disrupted, the experience was not,” he said. “Honestly, I think there was some extra bonding time and shared experiences for our class that may not have happened without the pandemic. I like to say we took our victory lap.”
Class member Dr. Jamie Mantooth, executive director of enrollment services and student engagement at UT Martin, said the pandemic caused his class “to miss the continuity and momentum of the experience that seems to occur as the program progresses.” However, he credited WestStar for providing virtual options to keep the class connected and extending the program so that the class could continue. “While the continuity was disrupted, the experience was not,” he said. “Honestly, I think there was some extra bonding time and shared experiences for our class that may not have happened without the pandemic. I like to say we took our victory lap.”
Retired physician Dr. Cheryl Browne, of Fayette County, agreed that some class bonding time was lost initially because of the pandemic, but the transition to virtual content helped class members stay connected. “Once we were able to meet in person again, I strongly believe it enhanced our bonding and relationships because we missed each other and realized the blessing of being together should not be taken for granted,” Browne said. “The extended experience made us want to stay connected beyond graduation.” She said that a class Bible study will resume monthly in August, and options for the class to meet quarterly for dinner in counties not visited during the sessions will be offered.
Dr. Charley Deal, secretary of the board for WestStar and UT Martin vice chancellor for university advancement, presided over the class’s graduation event that welcomed approximately 120 attendees. He introduced UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver as the event’s keynote speaker, who focused on “lessons from adversity” that considered what class members experienced during the pandemic by focusing on the life of James “Jimmy” Braddock. The famous boxer overcame poverty, overwhelming adversity and a severe boxing injury to win a heavyweight boxing title in 1935 and later enjoy success in the military and in business. His life was the subject of the 2005 movie Cinderella Man directed by Ron Howard.
“It’s been quite a year, or two years, for our graduates who are going through the WestStar program tonight,” Carver said, adding, “And so when we look at the things that we’ve experienced, one of the great things we can do is just look back at history and look at other tough times and find individuals that we can lift up as people that have come through tough times and persevered.”
Carver told how Braddock lived through many highs and lows to achieve boxing and financial success. He said that finding ways to persevere through the valleys is a key to emerging on top in life. “Braddock was always prepared. He was always working. He was always looking to the future,” Carver said. “He was always learning so that he could succeed the next time he hit that valley, and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
“And when I think about programs such as WestStar, it’s really about learning from each other but then going back to our communities here in West Tennessee and giving back and make sure every day we’re circling back and investing in those people that invested in us, but also making West Tennessee the best it can be.”
He closed by telling how Braddock gave back later in life by supporting orphanages so that disadvantaged children would have the opportunities he had. “And when I think about programs such as WestStar, it’s really about learning from each other but then going back to our communities here in West Tennessee and giving back and make sure every day we’re circling back and investing in those people that invested in us, but also making West Tennessee the best it can be.”
Deal followed Carver’s remarks by presenting several awards, including the C.P. Boyd Leadership Award recipient chosen by the class to Dr. Jamie Mantooth and the Jimmy Daniel Make-A-Difference WestStar Leadership Alumni Award presented to 2014 program graduate Brooxie Carlton, director of federal programs with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development in Nashville. Gemiah Bell, a UT Martin sophomore from Brownsville, received the Nick Dunagan WestStar Leadership Scholarship. The program’s board of trustees then welcomed the 29 new graduates that included members representing 18 West Tennessee counties.
Each WestStar class is chosen annually by the program’s board of trustees. Selection is based on individual leadership achievements and potential to contribute to West Tennessee’s development. Class members are selected from all occupations and levels of community and regional involvement and complete eight sessions covering topics including agriculture and transportation, energy and environment, public policy issues, education and tourism. Including this class, the program has graduated 886 class members since WestStar was established in 1989.
Graduating class members were: Andy Anderson, attorney, Henderson County; Jennifer Bane, executive director, Northwest Tennessee Workforce Board, Weakley County; Monte Belew, public safety director, UT Martin, Henry County; Lowell Beller, manager, Central Distributors, Madison County; Dr Cheryl Browne, retired physician, Fayette County; Jason Compton, director of operations, West Tennessee Healthcare Sportsplex, Madison County; Chris Donaldson, owner/operator, Tencom Services, Dyer County; Debbie Dunaway, public information officer/executive assistant, Southwest Tennessee Development District; Kyle East, financial representative, WoodmenLife & Woodmen Financial Services, Crockett County; Mike Enoch, plant manager, Marvin Windows and Doors of Tennessee, Lauderdale County; Dr. Norma Gerrell, director of schools, Paris Special School District, Henry County; Monica Heath, executive director, McKenzie Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development, Carroll County; Jessica Huff, director of chamber and tourism, McNairy County Economic Development and Chamber of Commerce, McNairy County; Barry Hutcherson, mayor, Chester County; George Leake, supervisor of secondary instruction, Obion County Schools, Obion County; Dr. Jamie Mantooth, executive director, enrollment services and student engagement, UT Martin, Weakley County; Lee Mills, captain, FedEx Express, Shelby County; Victor Parkins, owner and publisher, Gibson County Publishing Newspaper Group, Gibson County; Jennifer Perryman, director, Savannah Industrial Development Corp., Hardin County; Jessi Pruett, attorney, Byrd & Byrd, Attorneys at Law, PLLC, Gibson County; Teresa Russell, assistant principal, Anderson Early Childhood Center, Haywood County Board of Education, Haywood County; Shalondria Shaw, community development and engagement liaison, City of Brownsville, Haywood County; Dakota Simpson, special projects director, Tennessee Department of Human Services, Dyer County; Ty Smithson, financial officer, Tennessee Farm Credit, Weakley County; Katelyn Spivey, marketing director, Carroll Bank & Trust, Benton County; DeLaney Timberman, executive director, Hardin County Chamber of Commerce, Hardin County; Jamey Tosh, owner and partner, Tosh Farms, Henry County; Wendell Wainwright, chairperson pro temp, Fayette County Public Schools District, Fayette County; and William Wooten, president, Wooten Law Office, LLC, Tipton County.
Information about the WestStar Leadership Program is available at www.utm.edu, or call Virgina Grimes, WestStar assistant director, at 731-881-7298.