Erwin to receive inaugural Pioneer Impact Award

Tue Apr 3, 2018 at 02:32 PM

J.D. ErwinA self-made man rises above dire circumstances to leave a legacy. Dubbed “Mr.” Retail” by local businessman Bill Lovell, J.D. Erwin’s path to success was set in motion at an early age.  Well-spoken and eager to make a mark in life, his communication skills garnered his first bank loan at age 13 to buy hogs. He promised the banker, T.W. Rogers, he would pay the loan off in six months. It was paid in three.

Exceeding expectations is why Erwin has been selected to receive the first ever Pioneer Impact Award presented by the North Arkansas College Foundation. This award was established in 2018 to recognize an individual from our area who has made an impact with their notable service in support of Northark and the community. The award will be given by his longtime friend Jerry Jackson on April 12 during the 2018 Evening on the Plaza Dinner at North Arkansas College. Activities include a reception in the FedEx Freight Atrium at 6 P.M, with dinner to follow at 6:30 P.M.

The son of Dona C. and Jethro T (Butch) Erwin, J.D. was born on a farm that sat on the corner of Highway 43 and Cottonwood Road in Harrison.  He was the youngest of 12 children.  Just a few months after he was born, his father unexpectedly left the family to fend for themselves. “It was a tremendous jolt,” he explained. It was these early years tending the farm that instilled the character traits, people skills and work ethic that bubbled up as J.D. grew into a teenager.

He was proud of his mother’s grit and eager to make her happy. “In spite of struggles and hardships, we had a great life together.  We were involved in the church and that was the reason our lives were good. My mother gave to everyone who ever needed anything. She taught us to help others and be happy about it.” He pondered the virtue of giving, asserting “It’s a joy in life to help someone else with no expectation of getting anything in return. I’d like to encourage others to do that.”

Six of years after the successful pig venture at 19, Erwin was hired by Pepsi where he worked five years. Then J.D. accepted a sales position at Sav-A-Stop, which eventually became MMI. Ironically, Mr. Rogers, the banker who loaned J.D. money at 13, would eventually name Erwin assistant to the president of Mass Merchandisers, Inc. (MMI) and put him in charge of expanding territories and hiring new employees for company who was establishing divisions in Little Rock, Springdale and Springfield, Mo. Over the years, Erwin worked his way up from salesman to company president.

One of the first requests he made as president in 1980’s was to ask for a list of non-producing property the company owned. J.D. knew Harrison was in need of an area for youth programs but lacked land on which to build a facility. He contacted supporters to see if the company would donate the land. They immediately agreed.

In February of 1987, Mass Merchandisers, Inc. donated 21 acres of land to the City of Harrison to create a sports complex for youth in the area. It is now known as “Equity Bank Sports Complex”. 

Millbrook had become the nation’s largest full service independent distributor of specialty foods, health and beauty care products and general merchandise to supermarkets and mass market retailers in 48 states. The property was originally 113,000 square feet that with constant building projects as Sav-A-Stop, eventually sprawled to encompass over 27 acres under roof. After Sav-A-Stop, it became Mass Merchandisers, McKesson, Millbrook and finally UNFI. Erwin served 34 years at MMI, serving his last eight years as president before retiring at age 55. 

Now retired, and with his mother’s advice ringing in his ear, he had more time to help people who needed it.  J.D. believed strongly in the value of education. He joined the North Arkansas College Foundation Board, volunteered with Share and Care and became very active in community organizations.

Leading the Northark Foundation Board as president twice, Erwin served 22 years as a director.  He served on most every committee and chaired the most successful golf tournaments. In 1994, J.D. helped facilitate a $67K Millbrook Distribution Services donation to pay for computers, equipment and furniture for the Millbrook Computer Lab located in the John Paul Hammerschmidt Business and Conference Building.

In 2011, Northark honored J.D. and close friend Jerry Jackson for their contribution and service to the college by presenting them with Honorary Associates Degrees at Commencement ceremonies.

J.D. & Judy both have a special desire to foster healthcare professionals. They established the Erwin Endowed Chair in Nursing & Allied Health that provides funds for instructors to purchase equipment or obtain professional development that the college would not otherwise be able to fund due to limited resources.

“I’ve been in the hospital several times,” J.D. revealed. “I grew up in a neighborhood where people couldn’t afford to go to a hospital. As I became able to help financially, I encountered many young people who needed help. Many times we have stayed in the background and helped without them knowing it was us. The reward that you feel in your heart,” he paused with emotion, looking for the right word then he simply said “It’s really something.”

In June, he and his wife Judy will have been married 63 years. “We’ve grown and learned together and met people across the nation and foreign countries through my work with Save A Lot & MMI.” They have two children, a son John Robert Erwin, age 60 and a daughter Linda English, age 62.  “The memories we have created over the years raising our children are special, we love those kids more than anything,” he says

Clearly J.D. Erwin has never been the type to rely on others to help him achieve his dreams.  He’s the source of his success, but he’ll tell you he doesn’t want to be remembered as a big shot.  In fact, he’d prefer to be the friend you can call upon when you need help.

On Thursday, April 12, he will be honored by his friends and neighbors in Harrison and the North Arkansas College Foundation for his dedicated and outstanding service to our college and community. 

Northark’s Distinguished Alumnus, Dr. Ross E. Halsted will also be recognized at the dinner.  Tickets are $40 per person or $200 for a table of six. Call Institutional Advancement at (870) 391-3159 to R.S.V.P.

North Arkansas College is committed to providing an educational and work environment for its students, faculty, and staff that is free from sexual discrimination including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual violence. No form of sexual discrimination will be tolerated. See the full North Arkansas College Title IX Policy and Procedures for the specific definitions of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including examples of such conduct.