Businessman, Philanthropist Rush Harding III Named Arkansan of the Year
Rush Harding III credits his youth in Clarendon and the example of his parents for his dedication to his job and the causes he supports, which include Easter Seals of Arkansas.
A good teammate never misses a game or a practice.
A good teammate plays through pain.
A good teammate sets an example.
At an early age Crews and Associates co-founder and CEO Rush Harding III figured he’d be dealing with teammates and teams for years to come.
An accomplished athlete as a youngster growing up in Clarendon, Harding never took a business course in college and instead studied math and English with the notion he would teach — like his parents — and coach.
So while his career in investment banking may have come from out of left field, Harding still makes sure to be a good teammate. He always — and that means always — shows up; he plays through pain and he sets an example.
“I didn’t miss a day of school grades 1-12,” Harding says. “I didn’t miss an athletic practice or event for being sick or an injury.”
Proud owner of a pin commemorating 17 years of perfect Sunday school attendance, Harding has also never missed a day of work, come injury or illness, or even taken a full week of vacation.
His dedication extends to a number of good causes, including Easter Seals of Arkansas. And his efforts on the organization’s behalf have earned him Easter Seals Arkansan of the Year honors.
Harding joins past honorees like former U.S. senators Blanche Lincoln, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, current Gov. Mike Beebe and last year’s Arkansan of the Year, Bank of the Ozarks Chairman and CEO George Gleason, a friend Harding says he is honored to succeed.
“It was instilled in me from an early age that serving people was a high calling,” says Harding, 60, who will be honored at the Statehouse Convention Center on May 9. “It was instilled in me from an early age a man stands the tallest when he stoops to help people.”
Speaking in his high-rise Little Rock office with its view of the Clinton Presidential Center, wearing a crisp, white shirt with a monogram on the pocket, Harding is clearly far from his hometown of Clarendon.
But Clarendon is rarely far from Harding.
He has vivid memories of growing up in a Clarendon full of “cheerful, willing givers,” Harding says, a group that included his teacher parents.
“My Mom and Dad, they were always willing to give their time,” he says, “They didn’t have the financial resources to do a lot. My Mom and Dad are still beloved in that community.”
Harding recalls lending a hand as his parents bought or collected clothes and toys they donated annually to the Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church, the African-American house of worship in Clarendon. The items were delivered to the church’s lay leader, Juanita Stewart, and it was an experience so vital to Harding he got his daughter Shaylea involved.
Easter Seals Executive Director Sharon Moone-Jochums sees a direct line from Harding’s youth in Clarendon to his reliability on the job and to the causes he supports today.
“I really think that stems from growing up in Clarendon and the values his parents had,” she says. “It really seems to be a personal goal of his to just be that person.”
Harding recalls his eighth grade class being the first to integrate in Clarendon in 1969, giving him sudden new insights into people whose homes he had previously never thought about entering as he went about building lasting friendships.
“The African-American kids that came over to Clarendon High School, I got to be friends with a lot of them through athletics,” Harding says. “I gave them rides home.”
Not long ago the Clarendon football coach made a detour with his field trip class on the way back from Hot Springs to pay Harding a visit at his Little Rock office.
One of the students was Stewart’s granddaughter.
“She remembered how she enjoyed seeing all the toys piled up in Miss Stewart’s house,” Harding says.
Harding urges people to contribute whatever they have to good causes, even if, like his parents, all they can offer is their time.
Every other year Crews and Associates and its 250 or so employees ante up to build a Habitat for Humanity house. Harding and his wife Linda pay half the cost and challenge the employees to come up with the rest and, barring that, to spend some time helping to actually build the house.
Formerly a member of the board of directors at his alma mater UCA, Harding supports the school and its Conway neighbor Hendrix University; Philander Smith University in Little Rock; “all things Methodist” (including the Methodist Foundation) and Pulaski Academy, where his three children attended high school.
“We think [they are] institutions that have really impacted our family and we really believe in education,” Harding says.
Harding is also a board member of the Arkansas Arts Center and supports the Arkansas Symphony and Arkansas Repertory Theatre.
“Any of those organizations that make Little Rock a better place to live,” Harding says.
Crediting his wife and daughter for nurturing a hidden “liberal streak,” Harding also supports “underdogs” like the Weekend Theater because of its frequently poignant, social messages.
“Sometimes I like to surprise and help the people that aren’t at the top of everybody’s list,” Harding says.
And then, of course, there is his work with Easter Seals, whose stated mission is to “provide exceptional services to ensure that all people with disabilities or special needs have equal opportunities to live, learn, work and play in their communities.”
“One of the reasons why we’re recognizing him is the way he lives his philosophy,” Moone-Jochums says. “It’s a real way of life with him.”
Harding’s watchwords, basically handed down from his father Rush Harding II, are regimen, discipline, tenacity, focus and follow through. They are the words that have fed Harding’s own commitment to his work and good causes and fueled his run of perfect attendance.
Dating the start of his streak to May 24, 1976, Harding says it’s no great sacrifice to show up each day at Crews and Associates.
“I’m lucky, I really do love what I do,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine getting up and going to work every day if you don’t love what you do.”
There is a bit of the hard nose in Harding when it comes to keeping his office hours.
Earlier in the year he was involved in a fairly serious auto accident in Little Rock — another driver struck and flipped Harding’s car — but despite a bleeding head wound and black eye he returned to work.
Harding scheduled gall bladder surgery on a Friday so he could get two days’ rest and come in for a few hours to shuffle papers on Monday before allowing his son Rush “Buddy” Harding IV, a Crews employee, to take him home.
Harding compared it to a ballplayer getting in an inning just to keep a games-played-in streak alive and admitted such shows of strength are sometimes, at least in part, just that — for show, to send a message to colleagues and employees.
“The kind of business I’m in you really can’t do it part way,” Harding says. “You have to be all in or out.”
Buddy Harding played basketball for UALR while Rush’s other son Payne — part owner of Cache Restaurant, just a stone’s throw from the Crews offices — played for UCA. Harding coached both boys in AAU and in fifth and sixth grade at Pulaski Academy.
He frets sometimes he may have given his children too much, perhaps not challenged them the way his own parents challenged him. But he says neither son ever “disappointed me.”
Lately, Harding’s attention has been captured by his grandson, Rush Harding V, who was to turn 1 in May and is being referred to in family circles as “Five.”
Sometimes grandchildren — Harding already has two granddaughters — tend to soften a man, but the jury is out in Five’s case; Harding says he looks forward to when he can “toughen him up,” and teach him the values imparted by Rush Harding II.
Harding admits that, even at age 60, he still views each decision he makes through a “What would Dad think,” sort of prism.
Harding has already asked Buddy if Five can attend the Easter Seals banquet. The boy may be young, but there is no time like the present to be exposed to those deep-seated Clarendon values.
“I would be honored for my grandchildren to know their grandfather is being honored because he wants to do things for others,” Harding says. “And I think there is no more valuable lesson for young people to learn than that. Because the world is going to teach them a different story.”
Easter Seals Arkansan of the Year
When: 6 p.m., Friday, May 9
Where: Statehouse Convention Center
Tickets: $2,500 per table