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.
“Joel was a different character,” Leo York, our director of maintenance and construction, said. “He was very approachable and always wanted to help. If something needed to be done, he’d do it. He was in the kitchen, at the front desk, or serving tables. He was always right there among the rest of the employees. What a difference that made to everyone.”
The second Joel Smith Leadership Award was presented to York on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.
“Gary Greene, our former CFO, told me that you always treat your people right because they’re the ones who will be taking care of you,” York said. It’s a piece of advice that has always stuck with him.
“They take care of me as much as I take care of them,” York said about his team. “There’s been times when I’d call at two or three in the morning and my team was able to take care of the problem. There’s a lot of dedication here, and I enjoy working with these people. One of my guys, Will Tindell, just had his 49th year here. That’s real dedication. At that level, you’re leading each other more than I could ever lead him.”
York himself will celebrate his 39th year working on our mountaintop campus in March 2021. He first started in 1982 for Winrock International working as an equipment operator, running a backhoe as the Grove apartments were being remodeled. When he wanted to get his HVAC license, Gary Greene offered to pay for half the cost of the course, with York paying the other half. When the course was over, Greene reimbursed the rest.
York grew up in Mayflower, where his father was a marshal. His father was very political, and often hung around and was friends with many law enforcement officers who were connected to Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller at the time. York has enjoyed learning more about Rockefeller’s legacy in Arkansas over the years, which he takes additional leadership and moral lessons from.
“I just look at all the people Rockefeller brought in with him, like Jimmy Hudson and the people he had on his campaign team,” he said. “He had a way about him. He was just very cordial to people and liked having people around. He was very understanding and tried to help people with their own leadership responsibilities — how they lived their life and did their work. It was just amazing what one man could do for so many people. It’s really indescribable.”
Like Rockefeller, York keeps his friends and family very close. In fact, his son lives next door to him in Mayflower, and his daughter lives down the street. His mother, who just turned 97, lives directly across from him.
“[My mother] would still be cooking for all of us if we could still do that,” he said, acknowledging the burdens placed on everyone by the COVID-19 pandemic. He still finds time to see his family, though. When the pandemic hit the United States in March 2020 and everyone was home, he did a lot of fishing with his son at Lake Conway.
York plays the drums and sings in a family band, Jake Getty. They’ve played together every Saturday night for over 35 years. His uncle plays the bass, his cousin plays guitar and keyboard, and his nephew plays guitar. They stick with country and rock, playing everything from “Alabama to AC/DC to Prince,” he said. Their favorite songs to play are “Polk Salad Annie” and “Born on the Bayou.” They aren’t playing any gigs because of the pandemic, but it hasn’t put their tradition on hold. If it’s Saturday night, they’re playing.