Kevin Decker moved from Arkansas in late 2020 to accept the CEO position at West Tennessee Healthcare Volunteer Hospital in Martin. The Arkansas native is still learning about West Tennessee, so completing the University of Tennessee at Martin’s WestStar Leadership Program was a timely opportunity that gave Decker a new appreciation for the region he now calls home. He joined 29 fellow WestStar class members who were honored June 18 at the Boling University Center.

Including this year’s class, 974 participants have gone through the program since WestStar was established in 1989. Jake Bynum, UT Martin chief of staff and WestStar executive director, emceed the program.

WestStar’s 34th class included members from 17 West Tennessee counties. Participants are chosen annually by the program’s board of trustees, and selection is based on individual leadership achievements and potential to contribute to West Tennessee’s development. Class members are selected from all occupations and levels of community and regional involvement. Eight sessions are held in different communities and cover topics such as agriculture and transportation, economic development, energy and environment, public policy issues, education and tourism.

UT Martin Chancellor Yancy Freeman opened the program and talked about WestStar’s importance to the university and region. He recognized Virginia Grimes who will retire at the end of June following 34 years of WestStar service and welcomed Bynum as WestStar executive director who succeeded Dr. Charley Deal in the position. Deal left UT Martin in 2023 to become the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture’s vice chancellor for advancement.

“This program is something that is really important to me and really important to the institution,” Freeman said. “I see it continuing to grow in future years. …We will continue to have programming and continue to do things that will inspire you and make you feel special about being connected to this program, and you (WestStar alumni) have a responsibility to continue to come back and continue to give back for this program.”                                            

UT Martin Chancellor Emeritus Bob Smith followed Freeman and also talked about the program’s significance. Smith was a WestStar co-founder and also served as the program’s first executive director when he was UT Martin dean of arts and sciences. He described completing WestStar as a commencement rather than a graduation and reminded the class that their important service to West Tennessee was only beginning.  

“What happens in West Tennessee is really going to happen by our own self-determination,” Smith said. “It is not expected of us to depend upon what happens in Nashville (state government) or in other parts of the state. It is what we do for ourselves in leadership in service to our communities.”

At the regional level, Smith noted the importance of the BlueOval City facility in Haywood County and the leadership responsibility of WestStar and others to embrace the changes brought by Ford’s investment, “Because what happens in West Tennessee over the next decade, I think has an opportunity to be transformational, and if we miss that, then it will not come around again.”

WestStar class members talked about their experiences following the evening program.

“Not being from this area originally, it (WestStar) has really opened my eyes to the vast amount of opportunity that there is here in this part of Tennessee,” Kevin Decker said following the program. “I’ve learned that there’s so much to offer to the folks who want to come and invest their lives and their work here, and to me that been very beneficial for me.”

Decker spoke about his classmates and “their passion and their commitment to want to make their communities better.” He said that the shared WestStar experience revealed to the class and him “how we can all contribute to make West Tennessee a better place to be.”

LaShonda Williams of Carroll County owns Lakeway Nutrition in Paris and has worked as an entrepreneur for 27 years. She researched WestStar before applying and set her expectations for the experience after being selected for the 2024 class.

“So, I knew right then what I wanted to take out of it (the program), and it was to build stronger leadership skills as an entrepreneur,” Williams said. “… I think it’s something everybody should go through. If you’re in a leadership role, you need to be applying to be in the WestStar class.” Her takeaways ranged from ideas on making decisions and time management to learning how communities are helping the homeless.      

Alex Wilson of Ripley is a business development consultant for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. The UT Martin alumnus and two-term UTM Student Government Association president said he benefited from the friendships and new contacts made during the six-month experience. One takeaway from the program was becoming more familiar with local, state and national parks.

“Parks and recreation is going to be a huge piece of our quality of life for West Tennessee going forward,” Wilson said. “That’s going to be an attractor for people moving to West Tennessee the next 10 years for that little project going over in Haywood County (BlueOval City). That’ll be a really key component that we’re really going to look at more in the future than we’ve looked at it in the past.”

Award presentations included the C.P. Boyd Leadership Award. A current class member is selected who demonstrates the compassion, leadership and love for West Tennessee exemplified by the late Haywood County educator for whom the award is named. LaShonda Williams was voted by her classmates to receive the award.

Also, the 26th Jimmy Daniel Make-A-Difference WestStar Leadership Alumni Award was presented to State Rep. Ron Gant (R-District 94) of Williston, a 2016 WestStar graduate. Selected by the WestStar Board of Trustees, the award is named for the late Jimmy Daniel, a 1990 WestStar graduate, founding board of trustee member and a West Tennessee field representative for Gov. Don Sundquist. The award is presented to a person who has made a positive impact during the past five years and has a strong record of leadership in West Tennessee during that same period.

The Nick Dunagan Leadership Scholarship went to Jillian Brigance, a UT Martin sophomore health and human performance major from Martin. The scholarship is named in honor of Dr. Nick Dunagan, UT Martin chancellor emeritus, former WestStar executive director and also a WestStar co-founder. Her father and grandfather, Jason and Jerry, both of Martin, are WestStar graduates.

Bynum closed the program by acknowledging WestStar’s 35 years of developing West Tennessee leaders. He also committed to strengthen the program’s direction to better serve the region.

“The future of WestStar demands that we innovate and evolve to meet the challenges of our dynamic communities, region and state,” he said. “To increase our program’s impact, we are embracing a strategy of redefine, realign and redesign. …

“As we redefine, realign and redefine WestStar, we are not just planning for tomorrow but shaping the future of community leadership development. Together, we have the power to make lasting impact not only for today’s challenges but for the challenges that lie ahead.”

Members of the 2024 WestStar class recognized were:

  • Rose Bailey of Madison County, director of diversity, health equity and operational excellence, West Tennessee Healthcare, Jackson.
  • Greg Barclay of Obion County, assistant director of schools, Obion County Schools, Union City.
  • Steve Basar of Shelby County, CFO, Alpha One Apparel, Memphis.
  • Hal Bynum of Weakley County, Tennessee/Western Kentucky Division seed manager, Nutrien Ag Solutions, Union City.
  • Kevin Decker of Weakley County, CEO, West Tennessee Healthcare Volunteer Hospital, Martin.
  • Kamisha Dixon of Lauderdale County, principal, Ripley High School.
  • Molly Glass of Tipton County, parks and recreation director, city of Covington.
  • Kelli Grice of Henderson County, assistant vice president/branch manager, Regions Bank, Lexington.
  • Ryan Griffin of Carroll County, mayor, city of McKenzie.
  • Shelley Hayes of Madison County, regional director, Tennessee Department of Health.
  • Wes Holmes of Fayette County, chief of staff, Fayette County Public Schools, Somerville.
  • Blake Hopper of Chester County, executive director, Henderson/Chester County Chamber of Commerce, Henderson.
  • Tara Joyner of Haywood County, principal broker, Conner Real Estate, Brownsville.
  • Tom Lannom of Gibson County, CEO, Elite Dental Care, Trenton.
  • A.J. Massey of Madison County, county mayor, Madison County.
  • Lorie Matlock of Benton County, executive director, Benton County Chamber of Commerce.
  • Dr. Mechelle Moragne of Madison County, CEO/physician/owner, Taylor Medical Center, PLLC, Jackson.
  • Michael Pitts of Hardin County, chief of police, city of Savannah.
  • Todd Pulse of Hardeman County, county mayor, Hardeman County, Bolivar.
  • Jason Roberts of Dyer County, recorder/treasurer, city of Newbern.
  • Brianna Roser of Dyer County, director of downtown development, marketing and community programs, Dyersburg/Dyer County Chamber of Commerce, Dyersburg.
  • Amber Shaw of Tipton County, attorney, Covington.
  • Nina Smothers of Carroll County, mayor, city of Huntingdon.
  • Vicki Snyder of Henry County, general sessions and juvenile court judge, Henry County, Paris.
  • Stephanie Timbes of Hardin County, Main Street executive director, city of Savannah.
  • Drew Webb of Fayette County, account executive, Trace Services, Memphis.
  • LaShonda Williams of Carroll County, owner, Lakeway Nutrition, Paris.
  • Alex Wilson of Lauderdale County, business development consultant, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, Ripley.
  • Melissa Workman of Gibson County, trustee, Gibson County Government, Trenton.

Information about the WestStar Leadership Program is available at www.utm.edu/weststar or by calling 731-881-7298.