Since assuming the leadership role as president and CEO of The Center for Rural Development eight years ago, Lonnie Lawson has worked to build The Center into a state and national model for economic development providing a host of programs and services that are changing the lives of people in Southern and Eastern Kentucky.
Lawson was honored for that leadership and service to the region at the Fourth Annual March of Dimes Testimonial Dinner on Oct. 21, in which he was recognized as this year’s honoree before a large hometown crowd at The Center.
Many supporters who stood by Lawson during The Center’s early years—and those who know him best as a father, friend, and work associate—shared personal stories about his impact on their lives.
Hilda Legg, emcee for the March of Dimes fundraising event and former executive director and CEO of The Center, said she hired Lawson in 1997 as the director of business and finance because she had confidence in his ability to get the job done right.
“Lonnie Lawson exhibits the integrity that made me trust him and he has never failed on that,” Legg said.
“He has truly been a friend and someone who I continue to have a great deal of confidence and trust in.”
A year after he joined The Center, Lawson accepted the position as general manager and was named interim executive director in 2001 while continuing to carry out his responsibilities in that role and serving as business director. He accepted the role of president and CEO on April 11, 2002.
“The first time I met him I saw a man of vision, a man of enthusiasm, and a man dedicated to advancing all 42 counties within The Center’s service area,” Dr. Joseph L. Fink III, a member of The Center’s Executive Committee and former board chairman, said. “He is not a person looking for the spotlight. He is a person focused on a goal and trying to get from here to there in the most efficient manner.”
Clay Parker Davis, who has twice held the position of The Center’s board chairman, commended Lawson for bringing the organization through one of the worst economic downturns in the nation’s history and continuing to build programs, particularly those The Center operates for the region’s youth.
Rogers Scholars—The Center’s flagship youth program—offers leadership and scholarship opportunities for rising high school juniors within its 42-county primary service area. The University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University recently agreed to partner with The Center to become the latest of 15 colleges and universities to offer scholarship opportunities valued at $7.2 million to graduates of the Rogers Scholars program.
In addition, the Rogers Explorers program for incoming ninth-grade students interested in math and science is now offered on the campuses of the University of the Cumberlands, Lindsey Wilson College, and Eastern Kentucky University. And more high school students than ever before in the region are taking advantage of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute (ELI), a program for future business leaders and entrepreneurs.
Rev. Doug Couch, interim pastor of First Christian Church of Somerset, said true leaders are able to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses and therefore surround themselves with creative, talented people.
“I know Lonnie Lawson as a leader,” Couch said. “He is confident, but not overly so. He possesses a rare quality of uncommon humility and quiet confidence.”
Melinda Dalton, chairman of the March of Dimes board of directors, presented Lawson with a special award at the conclusion of the testimonials.
“I have been so blessed—blessed beyond belief,” Lawson said in accepting the March of Dimes award. “I have had a wonderful mom and dad. They taught me the value of a loving and giving heart. I owe everything I have to my parents.”
At the event, the local chapter met its campaign goal raising more than $25,000 at the Fourth Annual March of Dimes Testimonial Dinner to help further the organization’s overall mission. Proceeds will go to help support vital, cutting-edge research, community services, education, and advocacy programs all aimed at preventing birth defects, premature births, and infant mortality.