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Jay Noal Lawhon (1919–2003)

Jay Noal Lawhon of McCrory (Woodruff County) was a star Razorback football player. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1944 but turned down the offer on doctor’s advice. During World War II, Lawhon served in the U.S. Navy Air Corps. After the war, he taught vocational agriculture in Arkansas high schools and was a high school principal. He was the founder of Lawhon Farm Services, the 1988 Arkansas Business of the Year. In 1975, Lawhon and wife Lillian founded a non-denominational charity, the World Christian Relief Fund, Inc. (WCRF).

Jay Lawhon was born on July 16, 1919, in Monarch (Marion County), a small hill community near Harrison (Boone County), to Thomas Jefferson and Sarah McPherson Lawhon. He was one of seven children.

Lawhon attended high school during the Great Depression in Lead Hill (Boone County) and Harrison and graduated from Catholic High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County). His family moved him from school to school in the hope his football skills would help him get a college education. Lawhon was offered three college scholarships. Jay “Mule” Lawhon received a four-year scholarship to the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) to play Razorback football; this allowed him to get a BSA in agriculture in 1943, and he became an Honorable Mention Football All-American. He was drafted into the National Football League’s Philadelphia Eagles after college, but he re-injured a knee during Naval cadet training and, on the advice of his physicians, ended his professional football career before it began.

Jay married Lillian Swanson Lawhon of McCrory on October 6, 1944. They had one son, Jay Noal Lawhon Jr.

After World War II, Lawhon began teaching vocational agriculture in high school. He taught in Desha (Independence County), Searcy (White County), and McCrory, where he was high school principal for four years. He changed careers to work with agricultural businesses in West Memphis (Crittenden County) and Forrest City (St. Francis County). He founded Lawhon Farm Services in McCrory in 1959; it began as a two-person operation, with Lawhon working as manager, truck driver, head salesman, and mechanic, while his wife kept the books and worked as a salesperson. Northeast Arkansas was changing from a feudal-sharecropper agricultural cotton economy into a more varied, independent, farmer-owned region, growing rice, soybeans, and wheat. During the next twenty-five years, after which Lawhon turned the business over to his son, it expanded to five more locations throughout the state, with business interests throughout the South, and was named Arkansas Business of the Year in 1988, three years after Lawhon and his wife retired. It has since become one of the largest seed providers in the South.

In 1975, Lawhon saw television footage of famine-ravaged Bangladesh in central Asia; he traveled to the area, then returned to McCrory and established the World Christian Relief Fund (WCRF), a non-denominational charity. A member of the United Methodist Church, Lawhon resisted attempts by his minister to bring the charity under the umbrella of the Methodist Church, saying in a 1997 interview, “We went to church in Bangladesh. There were twenty-seven different denominations and thirty-five different countries involved. I told everybody that’s what you call a church.” The fund shipped food, supplies, and small farm and well machinery and helped with birth control efforts there. As the famine’s immediate effects began to subside, political and shipping roadblocks began to appear. The distance and time involved began to make the operation unwieldy for the small charity.

As Lawhon prepared to pull the charity out of Asia, he decided to sponsor two Laotian families’s entrance to the United States from a refugee center in Thailand. A family of fourteen was sponsored and brought to Woodruff County to settle at a home on the Lawhons’s rice farm. All of the children graduated from McCrory High School. Several graduated from college in the United States.

In 1985, after turning Lawhon Farm Services over to his son, Lawhon partnered with Dr. Guy Theodore, a Haitian who was chief surgeon at Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville (Pulaski County), to build in Haiti a medical clinic that became a sixty-bed hospital. Lawhon moved the World Christian Relief Fund’s charitable activities to Haiti, where the charity worked with small farmers, drilled over 700 water wells with volunteer U.S. workers, and was involved in reforestation. At the community celebration of Lawhon’s eightieth birthday, Theodore remarked, “Jay teaches that you cannot give health care without integrating efforts involving water, sanitation, and nutrition.” He praised Lawhon’s charity for providing volunteers; helping drill the wells; teaching Haitians to repair the wells; supplying money, medicine, and trucks for the mission center; and establishing a system for warehousing spare parts.

The McCrory Chamber of Commerce named Jay and Lillian Lawhon Citizens of the Year in 1996. The Jay and Lillian Lawhon Classroom at the University of Arkansas School of Agriculture Plant Sciences Building was dedicated in 2004.

Lawhon died on November 24, 2003. He is buried at the Fakes Cemetery in McCrory. The WCRF has continued to work in Haiti under the direction of Noal Lawhon. WCRF now maintains previously built water wells and aids in the construction of the sixty-bed Pignon hospital and four Pignon area medical clinics, as well as several schools. WCRF maintains offices and employees in Haiti as well as its U.S. base in McCrory.

For additional information:
Berry, Marion. “Tribute to Jay Lawhon.” U.S. Congressional Record. February 10, 2004.

Cantwell, Janis. “Helping the Needy to Help Themselves—From Woodruff County to Bangladesh.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Three Rivers Edition. March 16, 1997, p. 1.

Forrest Laws Farm Press Editorial Staff. “Journey Returns Mr. Jay to his Roots.” Delta Farm Press. May 28, 2003, p. 1.

Obituary of Jay Noal Lawhon. Searcy Daily Citizen. November 25, 2003, p. 14.

WCRF. http://pignon.org/NewFiles/WCRF.html (accessed March 15, 2006).

 Janis Cantwell
Searcy, Arkansas

Last Updated 4/8/2011

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