If you're going to spend a year in Malawi, it's good to take some cheese dip.
Such was the thinking of Little Rock native Tyler Denton, who, after helping open the Clinton Presidential Center in 2004, continued to work for the Clinton Foundation in the African country.
"I remember getting my bags packed and thinking that I've got to take some food with me," says Denton, 43. "I thought I might need to make some cheese dip, so I packed eight blocks of Velveeta and 12 cans of Ro-Tel."
Good move. Malawi's ambassador at the time was fellow Arkansan Alan Eastham, who had access to live, early-morning military TV broadcasts of American college football games.
"It was great," he recalls. "I'd show up with a pot of [cheese dip] and we'd stay up with some other friends watching Razorbacks football and eating cheese dip in Malawi at the ambassador's house."
Denton had brought a little bit of Arkansas with him to the place that would eventually become a sort of second home, where with poverty-fighting advocacy group the One Campaign and with his own Denton Global Strategies, he guides rock stars and politicians, dignitaries and charity workers on African journeys that highlight the successes and challenges of the continent and show the work done by groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development and others.
Speaking earlier this month at the Little Rock home he shares with his wife, Amanda; their sons Jack, 3, and Wilson, 5; and a pair of chocolate lab-mixes named Bizou and Stoney, Denton talked about a typical agenda for one of his treks.
"The trips are about creating firsthand experiences for people to understand how development works. We may focus on HIV and spend time at a hospital or a clinic talking with nurses or doctors. The next day, we may focus on agriculture in the private sector. Then we may switch gears and talk about education and go to a school. We're bouncing around, issue by issue."
Bono, lead singer of Irish band U2 and co-founder of One and its cousin organization, Red, has traveled extensively with Denton.
"We throw a lot at Tyler, but I've never seen him thrown. Not once," Bono writes in an email. "He's got a real passion for Africa and for the people he has been meeting there for well over a decade now. It's so important that people in America know the good that is being done in their names -- and with their tax dollars -- in Africa and in particular in the fight against AIDS there. People want to know their money is being spent well, and that's what we look into on these trips."
Denton's journey to Africa began one night in 1996 at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock. It was there, after the retirement party for Arkansas Sen. David Pryor that Denton, at the time a junior at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and his college friends Greg Hale and Robert McLarty decided they would move to Washington and volunteer on President Bill Clinton's re-election campaign.
"We were having drinks and Tyler said, 'Man, this is our time. We've got to do it,'" says Hale, who, along with McLarty, is a partner in the Markham Group, an event management company that has worked with Denton. "The next thing you know, we're calling our parents at, like, midnight and telling them we're going to D.C."
The three friends moved to the nation's capital and went to work.
"We did whatever they wanted us to do," recalls Denton, a 1993 graduate of Little Rock's Hall High School. "It put us on a path that introduced us to advance, which is still a part of what I do."
Yes, advance, where a team of workers arrives in a city about a week before the president or first lady to make arrangements for their visit. Denton was assigned mostly to duty on college campuses, working with local groups, security and the Secret Service on everything from building backdrops and printing tickets to pulling in a crowd.
One campaign stop by first lady Hillary Clinton in front of a crowd of about 25,000 at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, was particularly memorable.
"It was one of the largest crowds she'd ever spoken to, domestically," Denton says.
"Even today, she always calls Tyler her favorite crowd guy," says Hale, who worked with Clinton on her 2016 presidential campaign. "After that, any great crowd, Tyler got credit for it."
IN AFRICA WITH THE PRESIDENT
After Bill Clinton's re-election, Denton returned to Fayetteville and his studies, but he wasn't done with working for the president. He continued doing advance, only now it was internationally, in places such as Amsterdam, China, Bosnia and Africa.
Clinton's March 1998 trip to sub-Saharan Africa was the first ever by a sitting president and Denton had gotten there two weeks prior. Among his duties was making sure Clinton's arrival at the Kotoka International Airport in the Ghana capital of Accra went smoothly.
"This was the first moment Bill Clinton would step foot in Africa," Denton remembers of that morning at the airport. "You see Air Force One and the lights at a distance. You hear the radio chatter and all of a sudden that big Boeing 747 pulls up and you're like, 'This is awesome.'"
The awesomeness was just getting started.
"I'll never forget getting in that motorcade and driving down the street, the presidential flag waving, the American flag waving and throngs of people going crazy that Bill Clinton was in Ghana," he says.
Despite the heat -- "Oh, man, it was ridiculous. It was probably 120 degrees and humidity through the roof" -- Denton's life was changed on that trip.
"It was as if a little window opened up to show me what lay ahead," he says.
There were a few other stops along the way, however.
After college, he returned home and worked for the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and Regions Financial Corporation. He was hired by the Clinton Foundation and was instrumental in the 2004 opening of the Clinton library.
"He played a major role in that and in the development of the Clinton library," says Skip Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and who also served as the foundation's first president. "He came up with the idea of the big countdown sign that we put on top of the library for the final year. It was a good idea and it kept up the interest in the opening."
The chilly, rain-soaked Nov. 18, 2004, grand opening of the library was also where Denton first met Bono and U2 guitarist The Edge.
"Even the deluge of rain seemed not to faze him," Bono says. "I thought to myself, 'Keep an eye on this dude.'"
Through the foundation, Denton was back in Africa, doing advance work in Tanzania. It was then that he got to witness the foundation's work on the continent.
"I was able to see the foundation's Health Access Initiative and what it meant to the people living in Tanzania," he says.
Through its efforts, the foundation has been able to reduce the price of HIV-AIDS antiretroviral drugs.
"Before, it was too expensive," Denton says. "Now those pills are significantly less than they used to be. They're free, basically, for anybody who has AIDS."
Fifteen years ago, he says, 300,000 people were being treated for HIV. Now, with inexpensive drugs, there are 19.5 million being treated.
"That's an incredible accomplishment," he says, noting that this year's World AIDS Day, with its "Lets End It" theme, is Saturday.
After that Tanzania trip, Denton lobbied for a full-time Africa gig with the foundation, moving to Malawi, along with his cheese-dip makings, in 2006 and splitting time between the capital of Lilongwe and the rural village of Neno.
"I worked for the Clinton-Hunter Development Initiative in Malawi," he says of the poverty-fighting initiative set up in 2006 by Bill Clinton and Scottish businessman Tom Hunter. "As part of those efforts, I focused my time on working with small-holder farmers to create better access to markets and increasing yields and by working with Partners in Health on the construction of a new district hospital and staff housing complex."
President Clinton recalls his former campaign volunteer fondly.
"I'll always be grateful for Tyler's work with the White House, his role in helping to open the Clinton Presidential Center, and his time in Malawi setting up the Clinton Foundation's work with smallholder farmers," he writes in an email. "I'm proud that he's continued to find new ways to make a difference, both locally and globally."
For Denton, an early encounter during his stay in Malawi has stuck with him.
"On my second or third day there, a doctor told me that Africa's biggest problem is access. Access to quality education, access to clean water, access to capital, access to markets. I've spent the last 10 years of my life focusing on access and how can we improve that access."
ONE AND RED
While Denton was in Malawi, a friend asked if he would come to Tanzania to help with some advance chores concerning a certain Irish rock star.
Bono had brought the 2007 Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference to Arusha, Tanzania, and Denton reconnected with the singer and met workers from the Washington-based group DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa).
After his year in Malawi, he accepted a job as trip director with DATA and moved to Washington, knowing that he would be traveling back and forth to Africa (Washington was also where he met Amanda, a Virginia native who works as an intellectual property attorney).
"Being a trip director for DATA blended all my skills into one spot," he says.
DATA was soon shuttered and brought under the auspices of the One Campaign, the advocacy group that focuses on ending extreme poverty and preventable diseases, particularly in Africa. Red, another group co-founded by Bono, is a part of One, and Denton worked with both taking groups to Africa.
One of his first trips with One included a bipartisan group of, among others, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle and Cindy McCain, philanthropist and wife of Arizona Sen. John McCain. The group was traveling as part of the One Vote campaign.
"That trip really helped One solidify its mission," Denton says of the 2008 excursion. "You're trying to give these people a better platform and an understanding of how challenging the problems are, but also how successful we are in combating them."
He started Denton Global Services two years ago as "a logistics and event management company specializing in travel to developing countries and producing world-class events." His client base, he says, is worldwide and he still works closely with One and Red.
"Africa brings out the best and worst in people from a travel perspective," he says. "It's a roller coaster. We demonstrate great success stories that will bring tears to your eyes and then show challenges that will just drive you nuts."
With help from a network of drivers, interpreters and other local experts, he leads six to eight trips a year, including some to Asia and South America. In February, Denton took a delegation of 17 members of the U.S. Congress to India to, among other things, observe work done there by the nonprofit Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Thinking on one's feet is also a crucial skill in this line of work. Bono recalled Denton's help as the singer attended the 2013 funeral of Nelson Mandela in Qunu, South Africa.
"I really can't imagine a bigger logistical challenge or a more emotional event. But first we had to get there, and there were a lot of security issues," he says. "Somehow, Tyler arranged for us to hitch a ride in former South African President F.W. de Klerk's motorcade. I'm not sure if they had second thoughts about us joining, because all of a sudden their cars took off at breakneck speed and the minivans Tyler had rented for us could barely keep up. I think that might have been the only time I've seen Tyler sweat. It wasn't clear if he was more afraid that we'd lose them, or that the vans we were in would fall apart on the highway, as I remember the front of the minivan shimmying back and forth as it was pushed to max speed. He wasn't the only one sweating."
LITTLE ROCK ROOTS
Denton credits wife Amanda with keeping things running while he's away.
"It's hard on her when I travel and she's got two rambunctious, rowdy kids, her own schedule and dogs that don't rest, but she's incredible," he says.
And despite all this globetrotting, he is firmly rooted in Little Rock.
Since 2012, he has represented District 2 on the Pulaski County Quorum Court, and plans to run for reelection.
"The Quorum Court keeps me anchored in local issues," he says. "I want my kids to see that. I want them to understand that public service is important."
Of course, there are big differences between Little Rock and a small village in Malawi, but the similarities are just as important.
"Life there is different, but the people are entirely the same," he says. "They want exactly what we want. They want opportunity, they want what's best for their kids, they want a quality education ... I was exposed to the fight against global poverty and preventable disease, and I see it as my life's calling. I'm not a doctor or a scientist or an engineer, but I am a quintessential connector who can help take those doctors, engineers, scientists and celebrities and expose them to those issues and hopefully increase the access to better opportunities and livelihoods."
Robert Tyler Denton
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Sept. 4, 1974, Little Rock
MY FAMILY IS: what motivates and drives me every day. I love being a husband and dad to my two boys more than anything in the world.
MY HOBBIES INCLUDE: being an urban tomato farmer, cooking, golf, camping with my wife and kids (in a Buffalo River cabin!).
MY FIRST TRIP TO AFRICA WAS: advancing the first leg of the first trip to sub-Saharan Africa by a sitting U.S. president (Bill Clinton, Ghana 1998).
THE LAST BOOK I READ WAS: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer.
THE LEGACY I HOPE TO LEAVE IS: showing my children that “when you pray, move your feet” (African Proverb), action makes a world of difference in the lives of many.
MY FAVORITE PART OF MY JOB IS: seeing people find and fulfill their own destiny.
THE BEST PART OF BEING ON THE QUORUM COURT IS: leading bipartisan efforts, like strengthening our water quality protections and promoting healthier lifestyles through our world-class bike paths and trails.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Energizer
“I’m proud that he’s continued to find new ways to make a difference, both locally and globally,” says former President Bill Clinton about Robert Tyler Denton
High Profile on 11/26/2017
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