James Lee Witt has lived a remarkable life. He grew up in Dardanelle and still lives in the home where his parents worked as domestic and field hands. He’s a member of the First Baptist Church, the church where he was baptized. He met his future bride, Lea Ellen Hodges, at Dardanelle High School. They have two sons, and three grandchildren, and had been married 51 years when she passed away in September.
James Lee’s sons, Jimmy and Michael, settled near their home with their families. Grandson Carter is in college. Parker plays football at Dardanelle High School. And at 12, Jesse is learning about deer hunting from his granddad.
While James Lee started a construction company in his early twenties, public service has always been part of his life. In 1978, he was elected County Judge in Yell County where he started the food pantry in partnership with local churches and was Co-Chair of the Child Development, Inc. to promote early childhood programs in the community. His approach as County Judge was the same as it has been throughout his career: hands-on. People still remember James Lee taking control of a road grader to clear county roads during snowstorms.
James Lee served 10 years as County Judge until he was appointed Director of Arkansas Office of Emergency Services and managed the state’s response to disasters. Based on his performance, President Clinton nominated James Lee to be the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). His nomination won unanimous support in the United States Senate.
At FEMA, James Lee was the best kind of leader: a common sense guy who would listen to everyone. In just a short time, he transformed FEMA from a failing agency to what was widely recognized as the most successful agency in government. He accomplished this unprecedented turnaround by putting performance and people ahead of politics.
Time Magazine’s special segment on James Lee called him the “Master of Disaster.” Democrats and Republicans alike praised him for his leadership and FEMA’s performance, as did the state and local officials where FEMA worked. As Director, Witt oversaw 379 major disasters, including some of the most devastating disasters of all time. These included the Oklahoma City bombing, the Great Midwest Flood, horrendous tornadoes, numerous wildfires and hurricanes, and Northridge, the most destructive recent earthquake in the country. Witt managed a total of 710 disaster declarations, 65 emergency declarations and 266 fire suppression authorizations.
After FEMA, James Lee opened James Lee Witt Associates, a company that helps governments and corporations throughout the world recover from disasters and deal with other crises. Somehow he still finds time to bale hay, take care of his cattle and hunt whatever is in season. And every Friday night in the fall, you’ll find James Lee cheering for Parker and the rest of the Dardanelle High School Sand Lizards.