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 helping them be the best at their jobs, regardless of position or department. The award is chosen based on nominations submitted by Institute employees. 

The third Joel Smith Leadership Award was presented to Hospitality Supervisor of Front Desk Jeanice Robinson on Oct. 22.

“I was really excited before Joel ever got here,” Jeanice Robinson said after receiving the award. She’d already heard a lot about Joel before he started at the Institute as director of operations because her sister had worked for him at Petit Jean State Park. 

“She could not keep from talking about him,” she said. “How wonderful he was, what a great boss he was, how understanding, supportive, and encouraging he was. How he could think outside the box and come up with ideas that you wouldn’t even dream of to make a situation work. So I had great expectations and he did not disappoint. As soon as he walked through the door, I could tell that he was everything my sister said he was.”

Jeanice started at the Institute in 1999 when it was actually the Winrock International Conference Center. Jeanice has had several different positions over the years, from washing dishes to overnight shifts to management roles, but she thinks of them all as serving the same purpose. She dislikes ever thinking of herself as a “manager,” preferring to always try to be a leader and to help others become the same, like Joel did. This was noted explicitly by a fellow employee in their support for Jeanice receiving the award. 

“I have noticed that Jeanice’s servant leadership inspires others around her to go above and beyond their normal responsibilities — all because they know that she would do the same for them without a moment of hesitation. This has resulted in one of the best teams I have seen during my time at the Institute. I am thankful for the opportunity to not only work alongside Jeanice, but to also be inspired by her leadership.” 

Joel Smith Leadership Award nomination

“Jeanice is a highly deserving recipient of the Joel Smith Leadership Award award,” said Dr. Marta Loyd, executive director/CEO of the Institute. “She consistently uses whatever arrows are in her quiver to empower people in her own department, help colleagues in other departments, and serve our guests with the utmost professionalism and hospitality. I am honored to work with her.”

Other nominations called Jeanice an “exemplary employee,” claimed there was “no better representation of hospitality,” and described her “sunny, infectious outlook.” One nomination detailed an evening a few years ago when a group of students were at the Institute participating in Beyond Civility. The wireless Internet connection had been weak in one of the lodging rooms, so at nearly midnight the students moved to the Front Lobby. Jeanice built up a fire and made them feel welcome while they finished their homework.

“I invite people down to the fireplace all the time,” Jeanice said. “It’s a great place to be at the Institute. Your Wi-Fi isn’t working properly? Come to the fireplace. I will light it for you. I will find you some hot tea, or cold tea if you prefer. We can talk or I will leave you peacefully sitting so you can enjoy the magic of the mountain. When someone’s work isn’t going the way they wanted, you can light them a fire and give them that moment to let go of their problems. It can just fade away when you’re sitting there. I love the opportunity to help someone have a wonderful experience.”

At home, Jeanice continues operations on a cattle farm that has been in her family since 1887. The farm is located in Cotton Town, a small community in Yell County where she grew up and still lives with her family.

“My son manages the farm now and I help out,” she said. “I love being around the cattle and taking care of them. I love to watch the babies grow. My son could do it all by himself, but I just love it too much to let it go just yet.”

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