When our former Director of Operations, Joel Smith, passed away in 2018, donations were made to the Institute by his family and friends to establish a leadership award in his honor. Joel was a unique person with an authentic leadership style. He genuinely and wholeheartedly cultivated the potential of others by recognizing individual strengths and helped them be the best at their jobs, regardless of position or department. The first Joel Smith Leadership Award was presented to Conference Hospitality Manager Chip Porter on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. 

Su’Aaron, Smith’s sister, attended the award ceremony with her husband. “I can’t tell you all how much that meant to me,” she said. “I was moved by your description of Joel and I admired those same strengths in him. Chip is a worthy recipient.” 

It was a notification on his phone that got Chip Porter started on his path to the Institute, where he now serves as Conference Hospitality Manager.

“At the time I really wasn’t looking for a new job,” he said. He was a general manager at Cracker Barrel, a position and company he greatly enjoyed. “When that little bubble came up, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I had always told my wife that if I ever had the chance to go work up here, I’d like to.”

To Porter, the Institute stood for more than just money, or how many guests it could get, or how many events it could handle in a month. While he enjoyed his previous jobs — and all totaled, they made up 30 years of restaurant and hospitality experience — none of them had a bona fide mission. He had read about the Institute over the years, and even remembers meeting Tracy Kendrick and other staff members some years ago while he was working at Arkansas Tech University. He knew making money was always going to be important to any business, but he liked that the Institute was purpose-driven. It suited how he wanted to live his own life.

“I knew I wanted to pursue ministry work,” he said. Alongside his wife, Julie, the two have been leading Living in Faith Everyday (LIFE) Ministries at Fair Park Baptist Church in Russellville for quite a few years now, but Porter’s work with Cracker Barrel often kept him away from the church on weekends or during important events.

“I just worked all the time, and I thought that if I worked up here, I might have more Sundays off,” he said. “It’s turned out to be like that. I really hoped it would. I have the chance now to pursue my own mission.”

Chip Porter with Joel Smith’s sister, Su’Aaron, and her husband, Travis.

As a leader at the Institute, he relies on the lessons learned from the wide variety of leaders he’s had throughout his career — even the bad ones.

“I had bosses who allowed me to fall on my face,” he said. “You need bosses who will let you learn what works and what doesn’t work. In my experience, if you work with people and try to help them achieve their goals, it’s going to serve you better than if you only made decisions based on your needs as an individual. When you get in the habit of seeing those around you achieving their dreams, it really helps you visualize and achieve your own.”

When he’s not on Petit Jean or at Fair Park, Porter likes to spend his downtime outdoors. Whether it’s golfing, though he admits he doesn’t practice enough, or gardening, he describes being in nature as “therapeutic.”

“I love to deer hunt,” he said. “It’s a really peaceful kind of experience and you see a lot of cool things out there, like coyotes, bobcats, or whatever. I like to get out into the woods and sit and if I see a deer, great. If I don’t see a deer, great. I love it either way.”

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