This could easily be a different story about Ben Goodwin. This could be a story about how Goodwin, a native of Conway and graduate of Hendrix College, became one of the country's leading lights in the field of mathematics. Perhaps this could be a story about how Goodwin's rarefied work in math led to worldwide recognition and maybe even a Nobel Prize.
This is not that story. But it's not a sad story or one of missed opportunities.
This is a story of Goodwin as the current executive director for Our House, a Little Rock nonprofit organization dedicated, as its mission statement states, to "empower homeless and near-homeless families and individuals to succeed in the workforce, in school, and in life through hard work, wise decision-making, and active participation in the community."
Goodwin understands that he is an unconventional choice to lead an organization that stands on the frontlines of social assistance.
"I'm in an interesting spot for an introvert," Goodwin says. "But it turns out to be a great spot. I am sort of a connection point for people who want to make a difference, people who want to invest in themselves. There are at least 500 clients that come through the gates [of Our House] every day. We have a thousand volunteers. We have partnerships. All those relationships with the people working in or supporting [Our House] is what I do for my job. It's a program that works. This place makes a better life for people."
"He is very smart," says Judy Adams, president of the board of directors for Our House, of Goodwin. "I've been on the board for six years. We knew who Ben was before [he became executive director] because he was working for Our House. We knew him but you always wonder if [the person you are hiring] is up to the task. I've been very impressed [with Ben]."
Our House has expanded in recent years. Its campus on Roosevelt Road in Little Rock is a beehive of activity.
"We used to be able to hold staff meetings in this office," Goodwin says. "Now, we have a staff of 140 people."
Adams points to Goodwin as a key component in that growth.
"He has such an analytical mind," Adams says. "That isn't what you would expect for someone in his position, but he helped and guided us as we expanded."
Growing up in Conway, Goodwin spent his early childhood exploring his neighborhood, spending time outside.
"Every house where we lived had about an acre of land, and there was a creek running [through] the neighborhood," Goodwin recalls. "There were these undeveloped lots that we played in that we called 'the woods.' I had a great outdoor childhood. Anytime I wanted, I could go out and play in the woods and play in the creek."
There was a traumatic experience when Goodwin was young that left an indelible impression.
"When I was in elementary school, our house burned down," Goodwin says. "I was in third grade, and we had just moved into this house. Maybe a quarter of it burned but all of our possessions were burned or smoke damaged. We have one or two boxes left of photos and a few other things that survived the fire. We open it up every year, and the smell comes right back. We have to take a shower after we open it."
Goodwin recognizes it now as a formative lesson in how friends and neighbors can rally to lend a hand.
"The community wrapped us in support," Goodwin says. "A lot of the details are burned -- pardon the pun -- into my mind. For a week at the holiday season, we didn't have a place to stay. For the first couple of nights, we had to stay at the house of a neighbor. We didn't have clothes or anything. I remember that pretty well."
The model of help coming from outside the social circle of Goodwin's family was not lost on the young man.
"For instance, people would come out of nowhere offering help," Goodwin says. "My baseball coach at the time -- I think he was my coach for T-ball -- reached out and asked if my baseball cards survived the fire. He rallied some people to give me cards to start my collection over. That made an impact."
It didn't take long for Goodwin's intelligence to bring him to the attention of his teachers in middle school and high school.
"I was a standout student," Goodwin says. "I was always kind of interested in a broad range of subjects. I was good at math and was interested in it. I enjoyed taking hard math classes."
Goodwin had no illusions about where he fit among his peers in high school.
"I was socially awkward," Goodwin says. "It took me a while to find my place in the world.
"I was on the debate team and Quiz Bowl team. If there were nerdy pursuits, those are the ones I signed up for."
Goodwin's choice of going to Hendrix College, where he majored in math, almost immediately proved to be the correct one.
"Hendrix was a time when I came into my own," Goodwin says. "It's unique because the people there come from all kinds of communities. I identified with them. I felt like I could be myself there. In some ways, it was an inspiration for the kind of community I want to create here [at Our House]. People are supportive of each other, interested in each other, listen to each other."
At college, Goodwin met an art major who would become his wife.
"She was junior year's roommate's sister," Goodwin says of his wife, Elizabeth. "In a lot of ways, she balances me out. She lives with a great propensity for feelings and emotions. We get along together. We both came from strong families. We just celebrated our 12th anniversary."
Even among Hendrix's collection of bright students, Goodwin was getting noticed. Dr. John Churchill, the beloved late professor and dean emeritus, reached out to Goodwin to see if the student might be interested in applying for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Goodwin was.
"Churchill put together these weekly breakfast meetings to prepare us about the process of applying [to be a Rhodes Scholar]. I was unaware of what was needed. I remember [Churchill] asked, 'Did you read this article in The Economist.' I said out loud, 'What's The Economist?'
"There is a state level and a regional level in the application process," Goodwin says. "At both levels it involves an evening cocktail party with applicants, panelists and former Rhodes Scholars from the area. The party isn't like a party but a performance because you are being judged. The next day is with the panelists. It's an hour-long interview. They try to ask really hard questions. They are trying to test your mastery of a wide array of topics."
At every step of the process, Goodwin remembers how he was surrounded by "amazing people."
"The regional was held at the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in Atlanta in a penthouse law firm with floor to ceiling glass. That summer I had been on a mission trip to Haiti. It was an eye-opening experience. Whatever we think about poverty here, it's a different thing there. At this party, a former Rhodes Scholar comes up to me and says, 'Ben, it's great to meet you. What's your opinion on the current state of presidential politics in Haiti?' I know I must have looked shocked because I did not know."
However unprepared Goodwin felt for the long Rhodes Scholar interview process doesn't begin to measure how unprepared he was when he was selected to be one.
"My jaw hit the floor when they called my name," Goodwin says. "I just couldn't believe it."
The prestige of being named a Rhodes Scholar is all well and good, but there is also the small matter of going to Oxford, England, to earn a degree. For Goodwin, to leave the only home he had known to pursue a Ph.D. in math in another country, added several layers of stress to his life.
"In the first few weeks, I had a big crisis of conscience," Goodwin says. "I was in a different culture outside of Arkansas. It was culture shock. My trip to Oxford was delayed because of 9/11. It only added to the effect."
A huge part of the problem for Goodwin was the subject he was studying.
"I thought what I was doing at the end maybe four people in the world would understand it. The atmosphere in Oxford didn't help. You are in classes in literally medieval towers with professors who wear robes and are cloistered. They are celibate academics. I know that is over-simplifying the situation. It all felt very isolating."
Having volunteered for Habit for Humanity while at Hendrix, Goodwin could see his way forward, and it wasn't going to be wedded to a life of academia or math.
"I felt like the world needed help," Goodwin says. "It took a lot of negotiating, but I wound up doing a second bachelor's degree on politics, philosophy and economics. I learned a lot about political history and political systems."
The bottom line for Goodwin was quite clear.
"I had to be involved in the real world."
Goodwin's life took another intriguing twist as he left behind the ancient architecture of Oxford and moved back to Arkansas. He worked as a research assistant in the psychiatry department at the University at Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He worked for Southern Bank Corp, a mission-focused bank. He "was writing grants for rural development projects."
The biggest leap for Goodwin found him starting a farm in Snowball, Ark.
"My wife and I got married, and eventually, we pulled the trigger on our dream and started a farm. We grew organic vegetables and flowers. We sold them at farmers markets. We did that a while."
Goodwin believes he and his wife would still be on the farm if not for a crisis that altered their trajectory.
"[Our daughter] was born very early at 24 weeks," Goodwin says. "It came as a huge surprise to us. We were way out in the woods. We had to shift gears in a dramatic fashion."
The gear shifting put the Goodwins in Little Rock. Their newborn daughter spent the first six months of her life at Arkansas Children's Hospital.
"Her fate was by no means guaranteed," Goodwin says. "We knew she needed to stay close to Children's. During that time, I started working at Our House."
The unease and uncertainty that beset Goodwin while his daughter was at the hospital made a lasting impact and informs his work at Our House to this day. His daughter, Ruby, eventually made it out of the hospital and is a healthy 10-year-old. Her brother, Matthew, is 4.
"For the first time, I didn't know if things were going to be OK," Goodwin says. "[My daughter] could have been permanently disabled. It could have been worse. I related to a lot of how our clients feel. I got a taste to open my eyes at the impact that Our House could have."
Despite the odds that perhaps only Goodwin could calculate, he is not in an ivory tower working on an impossible calculation but instead making a difference in the real world.
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Sept, 17, 1978, Springdale
• THE LAST GREAT BOOK I READ: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
• I CAN'T START MY DAY WITHOUT: Strong coffee.
• MY ADVICE TO MY YOUNGER SELF: Be yourself.
• WHAT I WANT TO TELL PEOPLE ABOUT WHERE I WORK: Our House's programs work. We are very serious about collecting data to measure the impact of our programs in our clients' lives, on tangible indicators of well-being like housing, income, report card grades, and more, and the data consistently show that we are making a real difference. For instance, after 12 months in our program, the average family is able to lift their household income to well above the poverty line. I wouldn't be passionate about the work of Our House -- in fact, I wouldn't still be at Our House -- if I weren't confident that we were changing people's lives for the better.
• MY FOUR GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: This one is too hard! Is there another question you could swap for this one?
• THE WAY I RELAX: Running, reading, yoga, watching sports on TV, hanging out with my family.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Learning
“When I was in elementary school, our house burned down. I was in third grade and we had just moved into this house. Maybe a quarter of it burned but all of our possessions were burned or smoke damaged. We have one or two boxes left of photos and a few other things that survived the fire. We open it up every year and the smell comes right back. We have to take a shower after we open it.” - Ben Matthew Goodwin
High Profile on 12/15/2019