Hard work leads Malvern judge from humble start to success

Hannah Keller/Contributing Writer Published December 29, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Sherry Burnett moved to Malvern following a divorce. She tried to make ends meet for her and her young son by working at City Linen, a laundry company. Her future was just next door, however, where she became a waitress for a home-cooking café. While waiting tables there, she met her future husband, the café owner’s son, and was offered work as a legal secretary in a local attorney’s law office. Now, she is the Malvern District Court judge.

Her start in life “wasn’t a perfect beginning,” but it put Sherry Burnett on a path that led her to become the Malvern District Court judge.

One of a family of seven, Burnett entered the working world at 13. She lied about her age to secure a job as a carhop at an A&W restaurant.

“We were a poor family. I had worked with my mother picking onions, and I thought if I could get a better job, I might be able to help,” she said. “I’ve always been that way. I’ve always worked. I’ve never been without a job.”

Burnett said she even shocks herself when she thinks about lying to get her first job.

“I think about it now, and I can’t believe I did that,” she said. “It’s pretty shocking actually.”

At 16, Burnett moved to Arkansas as a young wife and mother. She dropped out of high school and began working in chicken houses in Pleasant Plains during the day and the graveyard shift in an egg factory at night.

“I didn’t even want to smell a cooked egg then,” Burnett joked. “It was ironic, really, because I was scared to death of chickens. My grandma had chickens that would chase us when we were children, but you do what you gotta do.”

Her first marriage didn’t last, which was not surprising, Burnett said, because she and her husband were so young. She moved to Malvern with her son and took a job at City Linen, a laundry company.

Next door to the laundry company was a home-cooking café where prominent local businessmen would have lunch. When the owner offered Burnett a job as a waitress, it was a turning point in Burnett’s life and career path.

The owner introduced her son, Tony, to Burnett, and the couple married in 1985.

“He’s the love of my life,” Burnett said.

While working at the café, Burnett also met Don Spears, who offered her a job as a legal secretary in his law office. This opened a new world for Burnett, and she went on to work for other influential members of the Malvern community, such as George Hopkins, Matt Glover and Mark Roberts.

“They really gave me my start,” Burnett said. “I had gotten my GED, and they encouraged me to go on to college.

“I’ve been so blessed to have had so many people that helped me along the way, like Martha Gilbert. If it hadn’t been for her, God love her, I don’t know if Don would have kept me as a legal secretary without her showing me what to do.”

Burnett graduated magna cumlaude from Henderson State University in 1994, and the next year, she was accepted into law school in Little Rock.

“If I hadn’t been accepted to law school in Little Rock, I couldn’t have gone. I had two kids by then, and my husband worked in construction, so moving wasn’t an option,” Burnett said.

She graduated from law school in 1997 and passed the bar exam on her first attempt. She began working as a staff lawyer for the Center for Arkansas Legal Services. She decided to open a private practice and shared a law office in Benton with Meredith Wineland, who helped Burnett get on her feet with her own practice.

“When the seat for district judge came open, I said to myself, ‘I think I like my chance at doing that,’” Burnett said.

She has not regretted the decision to run for the seat.

“I love this job. I love being in contact with the people,” Burnett said.

“I’ve been there. I’ve been poor, and I know sometimes all you need is a little encouragement. I understand that just because someone is not on the top of their game doesn’t mean they aren’t trying.”

Burnett said that currently, the district judge position is part time. She runs her private law office full time and does a great deal of pro bono work. She also still helps with the Center for Arkansas Legal Services.

She said the district judge position will be open full time soon, and she intends to run for the spot. She has her sights set on a position as circuit court judge after that.

Burnett encourages those who are struggling to persist, and they can succeed.

“My advice is if I can do it, you can do it. It takes hard work, commitment and sacrifice, but if you want it, you can get it,” she said. “You can go wherever you want, but you’ve got to make it happen. You can’t just wait for something to fall in your lap.”

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