The Most Unlikely Journey
Article by Michael Devault, photography by Brad Arender
A life-long commitment to service, a supportive family and an infectious enthusiasm for her community have helped take this president of the United Way to New Heights. For more than three decades of devoted community service, Janet Durden is Bayou Icon for the month of November.
In 1949, a young woman followed the path of so many others and stepped through the doors of the Mississippi Children’s Home Society in Jackson, Mississippi. She was in trouble, as was the manner in which such situations were addressed in those days, and the Children’s Home Society could help.
A worker at the home reached out to a couple from the northern part of the state. Dr. Orville Stone and his wife, Hazel, had a son and wanted another child. This young woman’s baby needed a home, and they needed another child. It was a perfect fit. It wouldn’t be the last time the Mississippi Children’s Home Society would play a part in the life of this baby girl.
Ripley is a quiet town in the northeastern quadrant Mississippi, barely more than a speck on the few maps that bother to include the town. Nestled in the middle of Mississippi hill country, the community is the kind of small, tight-knit place where you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find a family committed to education.
Yet, for Janet Durden, that’s exactly where she found herself in 1967 as she walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma. Like the other women in her family, she had been accepted into Mississippi State College for Women – the W as it was known. These were the first steps on Durden’s most unlikely path from the hills of Mississippi to another quiet southern town. There were a couple of stops she’d have to make on the way, though.
She entered the W with a plan: she would become a high school speech teacher, a rewarding and professionally appropriate choice for a young, southern woman. After five years of college and a year in a high school classroom, Durden had a master’s degree and the startling realization that being a teacher wasn’t for her. It was, as she recalls, quite the epiphany.
“I spent one year – my graduate school year – as a speech teacher in Columbus, Mississippi,” she says. “I told the Lord that, if this is the best we could do, we were both in trouble. There had to be something I was better suited to do.”
That something better came along pretty quickly. Her father had said she majored in talking, and so she decided to put talking to good use. In 1972, Durden took a job in Charlotte, North Carolina with the 6th largest power company in the world. Here she would write training programs and teach other trainers how to instruct staff of the power conglomerate.
At the time, Charlotte was the largest city the young woman from rural Mississippi had ever visited, though she was hardly a stranger to North Carolina. Her mother was originally from Charlotte and her grandmother still lived near the coast in Wilmington. Still, she was alone in a massive city, where she knew no one.
“I knew I needed to know more about the world, so I moved to Charlotte,” she says. While in Charlotte, Durden did her best to thrive. She worked hard, applied what she knew and learned what she didn’t. She could hear her father’s voice driving her forward. “All my life, my dad said to me that I could do anything I put my mind to. Moving there, going to work for Duke in such an unusual capacity – that proved to me that I could do that.”
Barely into her mid-twenties, she’d come a long way from tiny Ripley to become a successful career woman in a new city with a bright future ahead of her. But Durden’s path wasn’t a straight one, and very soon, it would double back on itself in a most profound and transformative way.
While Durden was in North Carolina, she met her first husband, and they moved together to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Married life in Vicksburg was quite different from her professional life in Charlotte. The birth of her daughter soon followed, and by every measure it appeared she was on the path of southern woman – wife and mother. When her daughter, Taylor, was three, her life took a change.
Suddenly divorced, she found herself again responsible for all of her expenses and the expenses of a daughter. Though she was a veteran of a Fortune 500 company, in Vicksburg, she had only worked small jobs. Moreover, with the heavy demands of a corporate job behind her, she had time to become a community volunteer. It was work she had found rewarding, but now that she had two mouths to feed, demands changed.
“I had to get a real job again,” she says. In this moment of need, a friend called her out of the blue. Her dedication as a volunteer had caught the eye of multiple members of the board of directors of the United Way of Warren County. Her friend was the current president of the United Way, but she was leaving the job and had recommended Durden for the post.
Durden had reservations.
“I told her that I didn’t like a thing about United Way because, in my first job out of college, I was made to give,” she recalls. “All I knew about United Way from my first job was I had to do it, and it was the 1970s. I didn’t take to people telling me what to do.”
Nevertheless, her friend persisted. She convinced Durden to take a second look at the organization and how it operated within the community. Leaning heavily on her experience as a volunteer in the community, Durden’s opinion of the organization shifted. She acquiesced to her friend and applied. The moment was transformative.
“From the first moment, even on the very worst days, I love what I do,” she says. “I learned that very quickly.”
That’s not to say her opinions changed. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Durden’s work with United Way confirmed what she’s always suspected about people: they want the opportunity to contribute, but not the obligation.
“I’m still passionate about people having the opportunity to give, not being made to give,” she says. “I know how horrible that is, and I don’t want that to be the case.”
She became president of United Way of Warren County in 1982. For her first campaign, Durden found herself helping raise money for the Mississippi Children’s Home Society, which was a partner agency in the campaign.
“For me, it felt like my life had come full circle,” she says. “I love what I do and I never imagined that the agency I was adopted through would be my first in United Way.”
Durden led the United Way of Warren County for three campaigns. In 1985, a new opportunity presented itself.
In 1985, West Monroe Mayor Dave Norris was chairman of the United Way of Ouachita Parish. The organization was growing, but it wasn’t exactly huge. Even by 1980s standards, its annual budget of just under $800,000 was meager.
At the same time, the organization was in transition. Monroe-West Monroe was on the move, and many of the region’s population found themselves largely left behind as corporations came in, retail centers shifted from main streets to shopping malls, and the gulf between the haves and have-nots seemed to be growing wider.
The work of the United Way had never been more important, and suddenly they were without a leader. A call went out for applicants, and the board formed a hiring committee. As chairman, Norris had a seat on the committee. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but he knew he’d recognize it when he saw it.
He recalls his first impressions of an applicant from United Way of Warren County.
“Janet was one of a number of people who applied,” Norris says. “As far as I was concerned, she was far and away the best candidate for the job.”
There was just one problem. A community figure of some renown, someone Norris respected and who was a significant force within the United Way, was advocating for another candidate. Norris faced a decision.
“It was difficult for me to say no and to select Janet,” Norris says. But that’s just what the committee did. “When we voted, she was the unanimous choice for the job.”
Looking back, Norris says he lost a friend, but the community gained one of its greatest assets, a more than fair trade when so much good has come from the decision. Norris has no trouble pegging just how much success Durden has had in Monroe.
“She’s done more to get the organization, to draw the top people in the community into the organization, and to do more and more, whatever’s needed or asked,” he says. “She’s done that year after year.”
That started Day 1.
“I told her point blank, ‘I expect you to have a million dollar campaign,’” he says. He adds that the organization had never once posted a million-dollar year and, at roughly $800,000, they were still a long, long way off. “It was a high bar, a very high bar.”
The 1986 United Way of Ouachita Parish campaign raised just over $1,100,000, as Norris recalls. Durden cleared the bar and didn’t look back. Over the years, the mission of United Way has shifted. When she began her career, the organization was primarily a fundraising group. Today, that’s not the case. While raising money is still a huge part of what United Way does, it’s organized around community impact and seeks innovative ways to address community concerns. It nevertheless remains the largest privately funded non-profit in the world.
Closer to home, Durden’s work has blossomed.
After that first million-dollar campaign, more would follow. Many more, to be precise. Now in her 33rd year at the helm of United Way of Northeast Louisiana (the name changed as the mission expanded), Durden is set to close the books on a $4.3 million campaign – one of the largest ever. But those are just numbers – and they aren’t numbers that drive Durden’s actions anymore than they determine the course of the organization she leads.
“We measure our success by how many kids can read, how many students graduate from high school,” she says. “Are families stable? Are their needs being met?”
On any given Saturday in the fall, chances are you’ll find a hive of activity in the home of Bob and Janet Durden. Between them, the couple has four children – Taylor, her daughter, and Bob’s three. Life in the Durden house is a delicate balance. After all, she’s a Mississippi Girl in Tiger Country.
“Anybody that knows me knows I’m a sports person,” she says. “I know way too much totally useless information about sports. I love football, basketball, all of it.”
Her father had been captain of his college basketball team. Her uncle, his brother, had led the football team. Both of them – like all the men in their family – had attended Mississippi State University.
If they aren’t watching football on television, they’re at Malone Stadium, cheering on the Warhawks. Durden laughs.
“I wear maroon really well,” she says. She doesn’t have to explain the primary color for both of her main schools is maroon. That part just goes without saying. Sports is such an integral part of her life, she can’t remember not being interested. “I grew up going to ball games with my dad, my mother, her brother, all of my uncles and cousins. All really fond memories of that kind of life.”
If they weren’t at the games, the games were playing on the radio during supper. And that’s a practice she’s continued to this day. She keeps up with her teams, and she’s proud when they succeed.
Recently, she was sitting at home with one of her grandchildren, and they were leafing through photo albums of memories of sports.
“I was showing all of this to my grandson, showing him Daddy’s picture and telling him all of the stories,” she says. “He said, ‘Grandma, this isn’t about football for you. It’s about family and legacy and tradition.’ It’s a great heritage that I come from, and it makes it even more fun.”
Durden recalls the moments like they happened yesterday. Like so many other Americans, she had been glued to the television for hours, watching as helicopters evacuated people from rooftops. Only these roofs weren’t in some third-world country. They were in New Orleans.
And more than 50,000 of the evacuees were headed to Monroe.
She thinks of two Bible verses when asked about Hurricane Katrina and the integral part northeast Louisiana played in the aftermath and recovery. The first is Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord.” The second, Psalm 139, provides particular comfort, “he knew me in my mother’s womb.”
“I’ve always believed this is what God had purposed for me,” she says. “I look back at that first experience in Vicksburg as affirmation of that.”
If Vicksburg had been her confirmation, the first million-dollar campaign had been her road of trials. Now, with more than 50,000 evacuees headed to her community, came the trial by fire.
Essentially without warning, United Way of Northeast Louisiana found itself challenged. They had to assist organizations with providing food, clothing and shelter – and finding volunteers to help with all of it.
At the same time, Durden and her team knew that the agency’s signature 211 information service was going to become a major lifeline. Neither she nor her staff flinched. Over the course of six weeks, they arranged meals, transportation and housing for 70 people – three meals a day, to and from various locations for work, and back again. Also, 211 handled more than 110,000 phone calls. Durden is quick to point out that she didn’t accomplish anything. Her staff did. And they were able to rely heavily on the corporations and individuals who call Ouachita Parish home.
“The successful response to Hurricane Katrina speaks to the nature of this community,” Durden says. “We asked for – and CenturyLink immediately installed – 50 phone lines in our board room, at no cost to us. We asked for volunteers to man the phone lines, and over 300 volunteers turned up to rotate through shifts to man those phone lines.”
211 professionals from around the country also pitched in to provide professional response as well. The result was a resounding success, because of the diligence and generosity of the community.
Looking back, Durden sees why she fell in love with northeastern Louisiana and the people who live here. Part of that love comes from the open and embracing manner with which she was received. At the time she was hired, she was the first woman to be president of a United Way in Louisiana, a fact she didn’t think about at time.
“The community was very open and supportive,” she says. “For me, my experience has always been that this is an open, generous, caring community. I experienced that when I first moved here, and I see it every single day.
A lot has changed over 35 years – both for Durden and the United Way chapter she leads. The organization’s mission has shifted, as have the demands it faces and needs it helps meet. Yet, the fiber of the community she’s serving hasn’t changed. She still sees the generous spirit and excitement to help that first made her realize Monroe was where she wanted to raise her family.
“You have two choices in life: you can grow where you are or you can move on,” Durden says. “This is home.”