Effective leaders look beyond their immediate surroundings to identify growth opportunities and ways to improve life for others. James “Pete” Johnson, a lifelong Jackson resident, saw West Tennessee from a different perspective and sees ways to move the region forward as a member of the University of Tennessee at Martin’s 2023 WestStar Leadership Program class.
Johnson was among 28 class members who graduated June 20 following a reception and dinner at the Boling University Center.
Including this year’s class, the program has graduated 945 participants since WestStar was established in 1989. Dr. Charley Deal, UT Martin vice chancellor for university advancement, led the program and graduation ceremony.
WestStar’s 33rd graduating class included members from 17 West Tennessee counties. Participants are chosen annually by the program’s board of trustees, and 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. Eight sessions are held in different communities and cover topics such as agriculture and transportation, energy and environment, public policy issues, education and tourism.
Johnson is the Jackson-Madison County School Board chair and, through the sessions, saw firsthand community pride and how “every community has something unique” to build on for future growth and development.
“The challenge that we (the WestStar class) had was improving West Tennessee, so that’s one of my main takeaways is what we can do individually as a group to improve West Tennessee,” he said. Johnson said staying connected with WestStar classmates is one important way to apply what he’s learned.
McKenzie resident Christy Williams, branch manager and vice president of Regions Bank, also valued the class sessions, and the people she met established connections that will help turn ideas into action.
“Whenever I’m needing something, I have people I can reach out to and be able to make tough decisions and hopefully to make a bigger impact in the community,” Williams said, noting that she is already using her new knowledge. “I am on the chamber board, so I am hopefully going to be able to have a voice and be able to bring some things to the table through WestStar to help our community and Carroll County progress even more.”
Kate Bynum, assistant district attorney for the 27th Judicial District Attorney General’s Office, lives in Dresden and learned about WestStar from her husband, Alex, a 2018 program graduate. Her time in the program generated connections and ideas that she can use immediately to make a positive impact.
“I learned so much while visiting the other counties in West Tennessee – from the industry of the upcoming BlueOval City and the community programs in Haywood County to the school systems in Lauderdale and Dyer counties and on to the social programs helping individuals in Jackson and throughout West Tennessee and everywhere in between,” she said. “I have already made calls both professionally and in community programs talking about the great things happening in West Tennessee to try to bring good things back here to Weakley and Obion counties, where I live and work.”
Johnson, Williams and Bynum each encouraged other community-minded individuals to consider applying for WestStar. “The learning environment that it (WestStar) provides is really unique, and I think it’s something that anyone that has an opportunity should try to experience,” Johnson said.
Award presentations were made before the graduation ceremony that included the C.P. Boyd Leadership Award. A current class member is selected who demonstrates the compassion, leadership and love for West Tennessee exemplified by the late Haywood County educator for whom the award is named. Dr. La Sonya Harris Hall, deputy chief administrative officer Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, was voted by her classmates to receive the award.
Also, the 25th Jimmy Daniel Make-A-Difference WestStar Leadership Alumni Award was presented to Art Sparks of Union City to recognize his many leadership roles in West Tennessee. Sparks is a partner for Alexander Thompson Arnold, PLLC. Selected by the WestStar board of trustees, the award is named for the late Jimmy Daniel, a 1990 WestStar graduate, founding board of trustee member and a West Tennessee field representative for Gov. Don Sundquist.
WestStar-sponsored scholarships were presented to students from Paris and Martin. The Nick Dunagan Leadership Scholarship went to Austin Dunagan, a junior finance major from Paris, and the RisingStar Scholarship to an incoming first-year UT Martin student was presented to Betsy Mantooth, a 2023 Westview High School graduate from Martin who will major in social work.
Members of the 2023 WestStar graduating class are: Dr. Kyle Barron, vice president for student services, Jackson State Community College, Jackson; Kate Bynum, assistant district attorney, 27th Judicial District Attorney General’s Office, Dresden; Clay Cunha, director of business development, ServiceMaster, Cordova; Josh Frey, sheriff, Henry County, Paris; Dr. La Sonya Hall, deputy chief administrative officer, Shelby County Government, Memphis; Dr. Versie Hamlett, superintendent, Fayette County Schools, Somerville; Marcus Heaston, workforce development coordinator, Tipton County Schools, Covington; Sam Hedge, technician, Pest Stop, Camden; Sam Hutson, president, Crove Media, Paris; James “Pete” Johnson, chair, Jackson-Madison County School Board, Jackson; Undrae Johnson, director of parks and recreation, Haywood County Government, Brownsville; Tiffany Jones, owner, E&T Contracting, LLC, Henderson; Jere Kail Jr., agent, Tennessee Farm Bureau Insurance, Dyersburg; Pamela Mabry, mayor, city of Newbern, Newbern; Melvin Martin, fire chief and Emergency Management Agency director, Savannah; Randy Moffett, territory manager, James Green and Associates, Sherwood; Tosh Newman, director, Carl Perkins Civic Center and the Jackson Baseball Stadium, Jackson; Brandon Orr, area director, USDA Rural Development, Union City; Eddie Pruett, director of schools, Gibson County Special School District, Medina; Bill Rawls, mayor, city of Brownsville, Brownsville; Michael Sargent, owner, State Farm, Paris; Larry Smith, financial advisor, Edward Jones, Lexington; Hannah Stewart, assistant director for marketing, UT Martin Office of University Relations, Martin; Donna Stines, philanthropy director, West Tennessee Healthcare, Jackson; Laura Suiter, director of development, University of Tennessee Foundation, UT Martin, Martin; Donnie Walton, vice president and loan officer, Commercial Bank and Trust Co., Union City; Christy Williams, branch manager and vice president, Regions Bank, McKenzie; and Timothy York, senior human resources business partner, Marvin Windows and Doors of Tennessee, Ripley.
Information about the WestStar Leadership Program is available at www.utm.edu/weststar or by calling 731-881-7298.