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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Empowering the Delta Illustration - Photo by John Deering

In 1945, with World War II having come to an end, Sam and Helen Walton purchased the franchise for a Ben Franklin five-and-dime store in downtown Newport, the county seat of Jackson County. Newport was thriving in those days. Stores stayed open late on Saturday nights as thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers came to town from surrounding farms to do their shopping for the week.

The Newport Daily Independent proclaimed that Jackson County ranked 10th nationally among counties in cotton production, eighth in rice, 11th in soybeans, 42nd in timber and 110th in strawberries.

Sam Walton, a Kingfisher, Okla., native who earned a business degree from the University of Missouri in 1940, had shown an early aptitude for business. He sold magazine subscriptions as a boy and worked his way through college by managing newspaper routes. Walton went to work for J.C. Penney after college and returned to Oklahoma in 1942 to work for a gunpowder manufacturer at Claremore. It was there that he met Helen Robson, the daughter of a well-known rancher and attorney. Sam Walton joined the U.S. Army on July 16, 1942, and

married Helen on Feb. 14, 1943.

It was at that Ben Franklin store in Newport that Sam Walton began developing the retail strategies that would make him America's richest man.

Walton, who died in 1992, wrote in his biography Sam Walton: Made in America: "Here's the simple lesson we learned. ... By cutting your price, you can boost your sales to a point where you earn far more at the cheaper retail price than you would have by selling the item at the higher price. In retailer language, you can lower your markup but earn more because of the increased volume."

"Growing from a sales volume of $80,000 to $225,000 in three years, the Newport store was so successful that the landlord did not renew Walton's lease, giving the location instead to his own son," Kim Martin writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "The Waltons moved to Bentonville on May 1, 1950. By May 9, with his father-in-law's help, Walton had bought the Harrison Variety Store and opened for business with a one-day remodeling sale. Although a Ben Franklin store, it was named Walton's 5 & 10."

Sam and Helen Walton would never live in the Delta again, but they maintained warm feelings for Newport and the people they met there.

That's part of the reason why Kyle Peterson is nursing a cup of coffee on a cold, rainy Monday afternoon in December at Yazoo Pass, a hip espresso bar and bistro in downtown Clarksdale, Miss. In June 2016, Peterson was named executive director of the Walton Family Foundation, the Bentonville-based charitable powerhouse that awards grants totaling almost $400 million annually. On this day, Peterson is visiting with Gabriel Fotsing, a native of Cameroon who moved from Africa to Houston with his parents in 2000.

During his high school years in Houston, Fotsing read everything he could find regarding standardized test preparation, college admissions and scholarships. He was accepted to all 10 colleges to which he applied. In 2010, Fotsing received a bachelor's degree from Harvard University, where he had studied economics and French.

Fotsing joined the Teach for America program after graduation and was assigned to Lee High School at Marianna, where he taught French, physical science and biology. He also helped students in the district, which is in one of the poorest areas of the country, learn how to apply for college. Those students earned more than $900,000 in scholarships. In his spare time, Fotsing raised $46,000 in donations so he could take 10 students on an eight-day field trip to France.

Fotsing, who's wearing a Harvard pullover, founded an organization five years ago known as the College Initiative. It has helped high school students in east Arkansas and Memphis gain admission to Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, Vanderbilt, Brown and other prestigious universities. Based in Memphis, the College Initiative now serves almost 1,000 students. Those students meet with mentors on a weekly basis to prepare for college admission exams and learn about scholarship opportunities.

"We let students know on the front end that it's going to take a lot of work," Fotsing tells Peterson. "I'm passionate about this. The first two years were very stressful as we tried to get the initiative up and running. Now we're getting to the fun part as we see the students achieve their dreams. We have a 76 percent college retention rate."

The College Initiative is funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation. When Arkansans read about the work of the foundation, it's often because of large grants being awarded in northwest Arkansas. Few people realize that the Delta is also considered part of what the foundation calls the home region. Having watched other foundations spread themselves too thinly through the decades, the Walton Family Foundation focuses most of its Delta efforts on Phillips County in Arkansas and Coahoma County, which is just across the Mississippi River in Mississippi.

Organizations the foundation has helped fund in Phillips County in recent years include Boys and Girls Club of Phillips County, Phillips County Port Authority, KIPP Delta Public Schools and DeltaCAN, part of an effort that helped all seniors from Helena-West Helena Central High School get accepted to college for the first time in school history.

The foundation's home region program supports:

• Improvements in education through investments in public charter schools and work with traditional school districts.

• The development of young people outside the classroom through after-school programs.

• Targeted job creation efforts.

• Programs designed to reduce property and violent crime rates.

"I know from those with whom I've visited that Sam and Helen Walton were impressed by the people of the Delta region during the years they lived in Newport," Peterson says. "It may not receive as much attention as some of our other efforts, but this is really an important part of the work we're doing at the foundation. Other major funders have left the Delta through the years because it can be tough to see progress here. But we've remained in the region, and our efforts are ongoing. I'm spending a lot of time here. I keep coming back because I like what I'm seeing. I've worked in poverty-stricken areas all over the world, and I'm always struck by the resilience of people."

Peterson is only the third executive director in the history of the Walton Family Foundation. He replaced Buddy Philpot, who held the job for 15 years. Under Philpot's leadership, the foundation grew from making about $40 million in grants annually to about $400 million each year. The organization has made environmental grants around the world. In its home region, it has helped build more than 300 miles of biking and hiking trails in northwest Arkansas.

Philpot has long been associated with the Walton family. Prior to coming to the foundation, he was an executive at Arvest Bank, which is controlled by Jim Walton, a son of Sam and Helen Walton.

Peterson wasn't a Walton insider. His hiring was the result of a worldwide search. He moved to Bentonville from Boston, where he was a managing partner of nonprofit consulting firm FSG (formerly Foundation Strategy Group). The Columbus, Ohio, native received his bachelor's degree in international studies from American University in Washington, D.C., and later earned master's degrees from McCombs School of Business and Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone.

Foundations and corporations that Peterson has advised during his career include Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Eli Lilly & Co. and General Electric. Before joining FSG, Peterson was a strategy consultant at the Monitor Group and a country director in Zimbabwe and Rwanda for Population Services International.

"I had heard of the Walton Family Foundation, of course, and people I know had worked directly with the foundation," Peterson says. "I received a call from a recruiter, and the more I learned about the foundation, the more intrigued I became."

Once Peterson and his wife visited Bentonville, they were sold.

"We were staying at the 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Bentonville, and Jim Walton suggested that we take bikes to dinner," he says. "Later, Steuart Walton [one of Jim Walton's sons] took me on a longer bike ride even though I was wearing dress shoes. I saw Crystal Bridges. I saw the trails the foundation had helped fund. I heard about the other projects on which the foundation was working. It all just came together. The biggest thing, though, was the Walton family, their values and their humility."

Just before Peterson came on board in 2016, the foundation announced plans to make grants totaling more than $2 billion through 2020.

At the time Peterson was hired, foundation board chair Carrie Walton Penner (a granddaughter of Sam Walton and the daughter of former Wal-Mart Stores Inc. chairman Rob Walton) said: "Kyle shares the principles that have guided our work for nearly 30 years--a focus on individual empowerment and delivering long-lasting results. His fresh thinking and cross sector experience will lead the foundation as we further our scope and impact."

Peterson began work in September 2016. Now this former Peace Corps volunteer finds himself in places such as Helena and Clarksdale, tackling some of rural America's toughest problems.

In a 2016 blog post, Penner wrote: "When my grandparents set the course for our family's philanthropic vision in the late 1980s, they set out to make lasting change by empowering individuals. My grandfather often said there is no limit to what can be accomplished when people are given opportunity and incentive, and my grandmother reinforced that giving back was the most important undertaking our family could do together. ... This combined legacy brings their children and grandchildren together to create opportunity in the areas of K-12 education, ocean and river conservation and in the Arkansas communities that first gave my grandparents opportunity."

Almost 68 years after Sam and Helen Walton left Newport due to a lost lease, their heirs are making sure the Delta isn't forgotten.

Editorial on 01/14/2018

Print Headline: Empowering the Delta

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