The Crown JILL

Story by Jeannie Stone

The term “Southern Belle” is derived from the French ‘belle’ meaning beautiful. In her many roles as First Lady of Arkansas Tech University, Jill Lestage Brown — born to an old French lineage just outside of Natchitoches, Louisiana — daily taps into the skills she developed as a teacher, mother and daughter of the South to impact the students and community she tirelessly endeavors to promote. The university administration considers her volunteer efforts more valuable than rare gems.

“Jill is just priceless,” Susie Nicholson, Assistant to the President for University Relations said. “She represents the school with Dr. Brown and apart from him at so many functions. Most people have no idea the amount of work she does and to what lengths she goes ensuring everything is just so. She is the chief cheerleader for our university.”

Encouraging others is certainly one of Jill’s many gifts. Whether she’s talking up players before a game or approaching potential donors, her lips proclaim the good news of Tech and the power of working together to achieve common goals.

By her own admission, she is an avid college sports fan. It is a trait she carried from her father.

“I remember my dad would fall asleep at the kitchen snack bar listening to a baseball game playing on the radio,” she said, laughing. “I thought he was so boring, and now I’m following in his footsteps.”

When there aren’t any Tech games on television, she likes to listen to the radio. “But most of all I like to go in person,” she said.

Though Jill is a strong supporter of Tech athletics, she also roots for Louisiana State University, her favorite SEC team, where her husband attended graduate school. The Browns, former college sweethearts, have invested much of their time in attending extracurricular activities since joining the Tech community in 1993.

“I gave up my teaching career to be a support person for Bob,” Jill said. “This was a big step for me as I was very dedicated to my profession. I had taught while Bob was in graduate school, took a break to raise our three children, and started back when the youngest started school.”

“I was very proud of my accomplishments in the classroom and strived to make a difference in many children’s lives through education. At Tech, I am a listener and a sounding board for Bob. I offer encouragement and, sometimes, my opinion.”

Jill sums it up. “I am his volunteer. Helping university students realize their educational goals is extremely fulfilling, and it has been a pleasure to know many of them over the years.”

During her tenure teaching second graders, prior to her relocation to Russellville, she thrived on encouraging them to excel.

“Teaching is a challenging profession, but children’s brains are like sponges and seeing them grow is very rewarding to me,” she said.

Trading elementary students for college students has been an easy transition for Jill, who credits two beloved aunts, both former schoolteachers, and her parents for stressing education and the virtue of hard work.

“Both Bob and I are very fortunate to come from families where our parents dedicated themselves to us. I hope my own children feel that. The most important thing for children is for them to know they’re loved by their parents.”

It is that passion for guiding young people which has shaped Jill’s involvements. Along with her campus obligations, she currently serves on the ATU Centennial Steering Committee and has hosted, along with Dana Moseley, several trips for alumni and friends. She has also served on the River Valley United Way, Russellville Chamber of Commerce and Wesley Foundation boards and has served as a member of the Junior Auxiliary of Russellville, P.E.O., Russellville Culture Club and the ATU Dames Club. She and Bob are members of First United Methodist Church. She was named the outstanding leader of her Russellville Chamber of Commerce leadership class.

On the statewide level, she has been affiliated with Commerce of 100 for the Ozark Folk Center, Arkansas Governor’s Mansion Association, Believe in Arkansas 2007 Inaugural Committee, National Women in the Arts Committee, Arkansas chapter and Women’s Foundation of Arkansas (WFA).

Through her association with the WFA, a not-for-profit statewide organization committed to developing the professional, economic and philanthropic potential of Arkansas women and girls, she spearheaded the first regional Girls of Promise conference at Tech recently.

The event, designed to offer eighth grade girls exposure to a college setting and potential careers in math, science and technology, was a success due to Jill’s resourcefulness in securing donations to underwrite the day- long affair from local professional women and other community supporters.

Her ability to express her passions also enabled Jill to sell benefactors on the merits of Center stands today because of her determination. “It took us a lot of work and worry, but what we have now is worth all of it,” she said.

“It took us a lot of work and worry, but what we have now is worth all of it,” she said.

“Bob and I worked so hard raising endowments to secure the $13 million gift from the Reynolds Foundation, and I’m so proud of that building. It has transformed this university, I know, and it impacts the whole River Valley community. It didn’t cost our students or the tax payers a single cent either,” she said.

Physical growth is ongoing at Tech where Centenary Hall, newly minted by the board to reflect the 100th anniversary of the university, is nearing completion. The College of Business and the Academic Advising Center will be housed within its walls.

During the Brown’s presidency there have been innumerable changes at Tech.

“Many people drive past the campus and remark on the new buildings and landscapes,” Jill said. “That’s the part easy to see, but the bigger change is much less visible, but even more important.”

Tech students have benefited from the exceptional faculty over the years, she added. “With the help of the Board of Trustees, those people have been encouraged and assisted to do such great work. In the last 16 years, however, about two thirds of the current faculty has been recruited resulting in a learning atmosphere electrified by some fantastic young people and experienced veteran teachers. Together, they’ve added over 40 new programs and received national recognition or accreditation for almost every existing program on campus. That is a dramatic change.”

What thrills Jill even more is the gains made in student retention. “Enrollment is up over 77 percent since our administration took office, but the number of degrees produced has increased over 80 percent,” she said. “We have students from every county in Arkansas, 36 states and 31 foreign countries.”

For the last 14 years test scores have consistently run higher than the national average. “This Fall we will probably set our 11th consecutive enrollment record,” Jill said, “and that’s an accomplishment no other state university in Arkansas has done before.”

Furthermore, with the expected December commencement numbers, it has been calculated that one half of all degrees bestowed by the university in its 100-year history will have been awarded during the 16-year Brown administration.

“I am very proud of that record,” Jill said.

Obviously, First Lady Jill is a true asset to the university.

“Sadly for her, we treat her like she’s an employee not a volunteer,” Nicholson said. “She makes it a priority to get around to all the athletic events and is genuinely interested in the students, and they can feel that. Truly, she’s a good thing for us and a very positive influence on all of us.”

Jill, whose favorite color yellow indicates an abundance in creativity, wisdom and intellectual energy, is a family connector.

“We’re a very close family,” she said of her three grown children and their families. “We’ve had fun with our children at every age, and now they’re all married, and that’s fun too.”

Their children, Hugh, a corporate attorney in Allen, Texas; John, a tax attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, and Martha, Associate Dean of Students at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, their spouses and soon-to-be three grandchildren stay connected by phone, text and email.

“We don’t have to be together to have fun,’ she said.

In addition to tending to people she enjoys tending to plants, a trait she carries from her mother.

“I have her green thumb,” Jill said. “I have dug up and carried many of my ferns around to the various places Bob and I’ve called home over the years.”

In her scant times of rest she also enjoys reading fiction, working out at the fitness center, eating seafood and chocolate — though not necessarily together — and praying.

“She is a very religious and devout person,” her husband intoned.

“It was just embedded in my personality as a child,” she said.

“Let me say to you, when we came here Jill made a great personal sacrifice. She gave up her career, so we could do this together, and without her help, I would not have been able to do it. She receives no tangible benefits except for an occasional lunch and a thank you from me,” Dr. Brown said.

“She won’t tell you that, but I’m extremely grateful for everything she does. She’s the most important member of my team. She’s my number one advisor, and she’s the one person whose judgment I trust completely.”

True to her husband’s description, Jill responds to his compliment with a gentle demureness. The full-time volunteer is more comfortable behind the megaphone than in front.

Married 41 years, the couple basks in the glow of the other.

“I am very grateful for my blessings,” she said. “My parents would be so proud of Bob.” “Well, they would be proud of you,” he responded. “You’re beautiful.”

 

 

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