Joan Dempsey’s legacy at Southern Arkansas University, Magnolia, began with her father James A. Riddle, who graduated in 1961 when it was still called Southern State College.
“I grew up in Stamps and Lewisville in Lafayette County, right next door,” the 1981 alumna said. When she graduated from high school, Dempsey had several options but, in the end, chose SAU because it “felt comfortable and safe.”
After her freshman year, however, Dempsey made the bold decision to follow in her father’s footsteps once again. Riddle was a career Navy man, and Dempsey had grown up on his stories of serving in the military. She left Magnolia, “not because I didn’t like SAU, but because I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” Eager to set out and explore not only the world but herself, Dempsey enlisted in the Navy and moved to Japan, where she served for three years.
When Dempsey returned to Arkansas and SAU, she chose to pursue a degree in political science. She credited the program and its devoted professors for laying an educational foundation that would equip her to compete with students from ivy league schools, and at one-tenth the cost.
“Dr. James Willis poured so much red ink into my college career,” Dempsey recalled. “Sometimes it was green ink. He seemed to change colors with a lot of whimsy.”
Equally dedicated to his students’ growth was professor William Nolan, who made a phone call to the dean of public administration at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville on Dempsey’s behalf. She was connected to the presidential management internship program—a path that ultimately led Dempsey to a Master in Public Administration degree and a job in Washington, D.C.
“It’s the selfless gifts of people like professors Nolan and Willis that make institutions like SAU unbelievably important in our lives,” Dempsey said, reflecting on her life’s trajectory.
During her federal government career, Dempsey held two presidential appointments. First, she served as deputy director of central intelligence in the Clinton administration. Second, she served as executive director of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board during the Bush administration. During her career with the DoD, Dempsey served as deputy director of intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency, as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Intelligence and Security, and as the designated (acting) assistant secretary of Command, Control Communications and Intelligence. After retiring from the government in 2005, Dempsey began a career in the private sector as an executive vice president at the technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton with revenue responsibility in the firm’s largest market-facing organization.
And she excelled in every role. The 2004 recipient of the Security Affairs Support Association William O. Baker Award, Dempsey was also granted an honorary doctorate from the Joint Military Intelligence College. She received the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement, the Intelligence Community Seal Medallion, the Distinguished Civilian Service Award from the Secretary of Defense, and the American University Roger W. Jones Award for Executive Leadership.
With 25 years of experience working in the federal government as well as leading in the private sector, Dempsey has been uniquely positioned to support other businesses. Today, Dempsey serves on four corporate boards and one advisory board.
“That foundation was laid in Magnolia, Arkansas,” Dempsey said. “It never dawned on me in 1978, sitting in a political science class at SAU, that one day I’d be running a billion-dollar business in a private sector company or sitting on the board of 10 billion-dollar companies, helping them figure out how to grow and deal with business challenges like I do today.”
Now, the ’81 alumna is giving back to SAU and the College of Liberal and Performing Arts.
The Dempsey College of Liberal and Performing Arts will continue SAU’s legacy of providing a well-rounded, quality and affordable education to students in the region. Joan and husband Jack’s one million-dollar commitment will fund an endowment to benefit the college through scholarships, classroom enrichment, travel and faculty professional development.
“The generous gift made by the Dempseys greatly changes the educational experiences we can provide in the College of Liberal and Performing Arts, and the change will be for generations to come!” said Interim Dean of Liberal and Performing Arts Dr. Deborah Wilson. “When I first learned of this incredible gift, the words “game changer” immediately came to mind.”
And changing the game is exactly what Dempsey aims to do. For much of her career, in both government and private business, Dempsey’s work has revolved around technology. What she discovered was an imbalance between technology and liberal arts promotion.
“Without that liberal arts education that teaches you how to think critically and communicate well, I think technology is meaningless. I believe very strongly that we need to combine technology and technology fields with liberal arts.”
“Every dollar you invest in SAU has a ripple effect that creates opportunities far beyond just an individual student,” Dempsey said. “It’s a way to give back to these communities that nurtured us growing up and are experiencing tough times. We are thrilled to be able to make this investment.”