Johnelle DeBusk Hunt has seen trucking go through deregulation in 1980 and watched the company her late husband Johnnie Bryan Hunt started with her help go from five trucks and seven trailers in December 1969, to the mega carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc. is today.
And this Women In Trucking October Member of the Month hasn’t forgotten how tough trucking can be: “It takes tough people” because there are so many ups and downs, she said. Nor has she forgotten who makes it happen — the drivers.
“My number was published in the phonebook. I spent a long time talking to drivers,” she said, whether it was day or night, because she understood the driver being gone all the time and having a spouse and children at home and not being able to get there for birthdays and other life events.
“Johnnie never made it home for birthdays but he was sacrificing for us. I wanted people to know the sacrifices a driver made. I know what they put up with.”
If it was a real problem the driver was calling about, Johnelle would take care of it or find out who could. “I would get up and get that phone and check it out.”
It might be an aggrieved driver who thought he wasn’t being treated right. She added, “but if he thinks that, it’s the same thing. … So I would help in any way I could. If I could save one driver who wanted to quit or leave his truck it was worth everything else I did in a day. I wanted them to know I cared.”
She went with her husband to Hunt truck terminals across the country — Ohio, California, Texas, wherever — and remembers before they went anywhere in the terminal, they would go to the break room first and spend time with the drivers. “We would sit and listen to them; they were all so dear to us,” Mrs. Hunt said. “They make the whole operation work.”
Born in 1932, she grew up in Heber Springs, Arkansas, near Greers Ferry Lake, long before Greers Ferry Dam was dedicated October 3, 1963, with a visit by President John F. Kennedy. It was just shy of two months before Kennedy was assassinated November 22 and before the area became the vacation destination it is today.
Back then, Heber Springs was a farming community with some logging and timber operations. “It was a fantastic place to grow up and I still call it home,” she said.
Johnelle’s dad was in the poultry business and used trucks — smaller than 18-wheelers she hastens to add — to haul feed to his chicken growers.
“I would get one of the trucks on a Sunday afternoon and drive my friends around town.” Since there wasn’t room up front, most of the girls “would stand up in the back and hold on to the sideboards,” she said.
It was the type of town where everyone knew each other’s names. Saturdays and summers were spent hiking in the surrounding hills or hanging out with friends.
“I had a group of friends and we called ourselves ‘the dirty dozen’ way before the movie of the same name came out,” she said.
And it was those same girlfriends she was with when she first met Johnnie Hunt. She was 16 and he was 21 and drove a red Ford truck not unlike the ones her dad owned.
She and her friends walked everywhere together and would see him driving around town, and one night they asked for a ride and he obliged. Johnelle’s best friend happened to sit next to J.B. but the next time the gang asked for a ride, Johnelle ran ahead and secured the seat next to him.
“I outran my best friend and she was upset,” Johnelle said, but not only did she snag the seat by this handsome 21-year-old, “I got there and stayed there. I guess you can say I did run after him.”
From then on, the two were inseparable and were married four years later in 1952.
Johnelle had wanted to be a teacher because she loved children. Either that or a stay-at-home housewife, because she loved cooking and sewing and taking care of the house, “even ironing,” she said.
They had two young children and Johnelle said she took care of any “business” from home. “As long as he drove a truck, I didn’t have to work.”
After leaving Little Rock they made their home in Stuttgart, which is located in flat, prairie land in southeast Arkansas and known as the rice and duck capitol of the world.
J.B. had the idea to take hulls from the rice and sell them to chicken farmers for use as litter in the chicken houses.
She agreed to work part time in the business, never intending to stay on full time. But the business was growing and she said she had to pitch in “out of necessity.”
They had a business location in northwest Arkansas to service the area with rice hulls. Ralston Purina was one of those customers and that connection led to the trucking operation. In 1972 the Hunts left the prairie for the hills of northwest Arkansas.
“I didn’t like it,” Johnelle said. She thought they were doing just fine in Stuttgart, where she more or less ran the operation.
It was a challenge before deregulation, she explained, because they had to haul loads for brokers or whoever had the authority and it was hard getting money out of them, which was her job. “It was tough to get the collections to keep the operation going. We had a really, really tough time. We started building the company but it wasn’t easy. The first 10 years were spent trying to get the authority to haul freight.”
After deregulation, however, it started getting easier and in 1983 the company went public. But, she lamented, “I still did collecting after that. I’ve always said I’m a nice person but with collecting you have to be really strong.”
And persistent: “One call doesn’t get you any money. I would call three or four times a day because I paid the company’s bills and signed the drivers’ checks. We knew if we didn’t get the collections the drivers wouldn’t be paid. It was my driving force.”
As the company continued to expand, she hired other people to help with collections, but told Women In Trucking, “I kept the tough clients.”
What would she tell someone wanting to start a trucking company today? “It’s easier now” than it was back in the days before deregulation.
And as for women in the industry today, “the door is open in all aspects of trucking to women,” she said. “They’re just as capable as a man. If a woman can drive a truck and load and unload, they can sure work in any corporate office of trucking. We’ve always had women in our organization and they play an important part.”
Johnelle still refers to herself as a truck driver’s wife, and describes her husband as a generous man “who was trusting of everybody because he was trustworthy.”
There are stories in the media about J.B. giving out one-hundred-dollar bills: all true, said Mrs. Hunt.
“When he retired he drew Social Security and when he got his Social Security check he would cash it and keep it in an envelope in his pocket and give the money away to people in need. He never spent it on himself. By the end of the month it was all gone.
“He could look at people and realize they needed help. He would come home with stories of who he gave money to. It might be a single mom with kids filling her car up with gas or the lady working at the Quik Stop checkout.”
She said there were many times their trucking business seemed to be teetering on the brink of going under, but that J.B. was always optimistic and never dwelled on past failures or “the bad things of the past. He talked about how great things are today and how much better the future was going to be” and started each day with prayer and reading the Bible, which he called “his roadmap.”
When J.B. Hunt died in 2006, Johnelle returned to work full time as chairman of Hunt Ventures, the conception and development company started by her husband that now includes a 700-acre project in Rogers known as Pinnacle Hills.
“I’m just carrying on what he started, like I always did,” she told The Trucker.
Although she retired from J.B. Hunt Transport’s board of directors in 2008, she hasn’t cut her ties with trucking or J.B. Hunt, by any means.
“They [Hunt] have the million-mile driver awards and I’m still a part of that every year,” she said, “and I get to tell them the stories of our past and they know how much I care.”