Each of the four individuals to be honored by the University of Arkansas at Monticello at the university’s homecoming celebration in October share something in common. All were surprised to be recognized by their alma mater.
“Did you run out of people to honor,” said George Harris, president of Commercial Bank and Trust Company of Monticello and one of two recipients of the 2015 Alumni Award for Achievement and Merit. Harris was laughing as he posed the rhetorical question, but was clearly pleased to be chosen for the award.
“I know so many people who have done so much more than me that I’m not sure I’m worthy,” Harris said. “I’m very appreciative of this because UAM means so much to me.”
Harris and Camden forestry pioneer Jim Neeley will receive the Alumni Award for Achievement and Merit while Kelly and Anna Koonce of Monticello will be honored with the Continuing the Connection Award for best keeping alive the connection between UAM and Arkansas A&M. The awards will be presented at the Alumni and Friends Party at the chancellor’s home on Friday, October 9 from 6-8 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
“Each of these individuals has a special place in the history of this institution,” said Interim Chancellor Jay Jones. “George Harris is one of our biggest boosters and is always there when we need him. Jim Neeley established one of the first endowments in the Foundation Fund, was the first contributor to the Centennial Circle, and helped with the forestry program’s initial accreditation from the Society of American Foresters. His support of the forestry program is vitally important. And Kelly and Anna Koonce have been loyal supporters of the university, especially our student-athletes. This is a wonderful group and very deserving of these honors.”
George Harris grew up in Monticello and never considered attending any college other than Arkansas A&M, graduating in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He spent the next five years working for accounting firms in Little Rock and Dermott, becoming a certified public accountant along the way. In 1971, the 28-year-old Harris was named president of First National Bank of Dermott, becoming the youngest bank president in Arkansas.
Harris initially struggled as a banker. “I was the world’s worst loan officer,” he admits. “I let my heart get in the way of my head too many times.”
In 1981, Harris left banking and enrolled in graduate school at UA-Fayetteville intending to become an accounting teacher. He returned to Monticello in the fall of 1982 with master’s degree in hand and accepted a position on the UAM faculty. Less than six weeks on the job, Harris received a phone call from Bennie Ryburn, Sr., the persuasive chairman of the board of Commercial Bank. Ryburn wanted Harris to work for the bank. “I said ‘Mr. Ryburn, I’m trying to get out of banking,’” Harris recalls. “He said, ‘Well come work for me part time.’ Of course, part-time to Mr. Ryburn was 40 hours a week. I told him I would do it if I didn’t have to make loans.”
Harris left teaching, joined the bank full time as executive vice president and never had to make a loan. “Mr. Ryburn was true to his word,” says Harris. “He never asked me to make a loan.” Harris became Commercial Bank’s president in 1998, a position he’s held for 17 years.
Jim Neeley was one of “Hank Chamberlin’s boys,” a tight-knit fraternity of forestry graduates who studied under the legendary father of forestry education in Arkansas. Forestry runs deep in the Neeley family. Jim’s father, Floyd, was what Jim calls a practical forester who had no formal forestry education but who made a living buying and selling timber. Jim Neeley earned his forestry degree from Arkansas A&M in 1956 and founded Neeley Forestry Service in Camden in 1972. Jim’s son, J.D., is a 1985 UAM graduate and is now president of the company. His son, Daniel, a 2012 UAM graduate, also works for Neeley Forestry as a GIS specialist. Two other UAM grads – Art McCants and Josh Barkhimer – are also part of the company.
“I’ve always loved the school,” says Jim Neeley. “I’ve always been interested in the forestry program. It’s a part of our family and our company.”
Neeley started out in 1956 working in the land owner assistance program for International Paper. After a two-year hitch in the Army, Neeley returned to IP and stayed there until 1963. After a few years consulting and four years working for Georgia-Pacific, Neeley decided to form his own company in 1972. Neeley Forestry Service grew from managing approximately 20,000 acres the first year to more than 200,000 acres, most in south Arkansas and spilling into northeast Texas and north Louisiana.
Along the way, Neeley developed a reputation as someone his clients could trust. “Dad has always had a passion for helping people,” says J.D. “That’s what has driven the success of our business. He’s always looked out for his clients’ best interests. Dad’s reputation is what’s made the company successful.”
Now 81, Jim Neeley has no plans to retire. He still comes to the office and puts in a full day. “I’d be bored to death if I wasn’t doing this,” he says with a smile.
Kelly and Anna Koonce have a long history with Arkansas A&M and UAM. Both are Monticello natives – Kelly is a Monticello High graduate while Anna attended Drew Central. Both graduated from UAM, although the school’s name on their degrees is not the same. Kelly received his forestry degree from Arkansas A&M in 1959. Anna started at A&M in 1957, dropped out in ’59 to marry Kelly and didn’t go back until 1978, earning a degree in accounting a year later from UAM.
Kelly, who joined the Army National Guard in 1959, worked as a consulting forester, first in Oakdale, La., then in Greenville, Miss., until 1968 when he decided to make the military his full-time career. Kelly became a training officer for a tank battalion. When he retired from active duty in 1989 as a lieutenant colonel, Koonce commanded the largest reserve battalion in the U.S. Army.
Kelly and Anna became active in the UAM Alumni Association in the 1980s with Kelly serving as the organization’s president. He worked closely with former Chancellor Fred Taylor to organize local alumni gatherings and pushed the idea of alumni association dues to be used for scholarships.
After earning her degree in ’79, Anna built a successful career in accounting, working for Murphy Oil in El Dorado and a CPA firm in North Little Rock before forming her own accounting company, Koonce & Associates, in Little Rock.
Kelly went back into forestry after retiring from the military, working for the Soil Conservation Service, first as state forester and later as a trainer on the SCS national staff.
Now retired, Kelly and Anna are avid supporters of the Boll Weevils and Cotton Blossoms, frequently hosting the softball and basketball teams for cook-outs at their Monticello home. “We have really enjoyed getting to know the players,” says Anna, “particularly the softball girls. They’re a really, really special group of people.”
“UAM has been a part of my life forever,” adds Kelly. “I don’t consider what we do as anything special, but that college has always had a special place in our hearts.”