Judy Simmons Henry's focus was on getting a medical degree, but a book altered her path.
Henry was working toward a master's degree in general science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, part of her planned route to becoming a pediatrician.
"I was a gym rat, from the time I was little all the way up through college and through my master's program. When I finished my collegiate gymnastics career, I started coaching in Fayetteville during my master's program, and I coached the women's gymnastics program there," Henry says. "One of my graduate school professors gave me a book one day as I was leaving the gym and suggested that I might want to read it. It was a book on sports law."
Henry and her women's team had just completed a tough workout. It was competition season and she was busy with coaching that team as well as some youth teams at the Fayetteville Youth Center, she was leading an exercise class three days a week for professors on the university campus, and she was in graduate school, but she carved out time to read the book.
"It was about the legal aspects of sports and representing athletes and all the laws and regulations," she says. "My eyes were opened to an entirely new opportunity. So I went back to my professor and said, 'I don't really know what to do next. I've always thought that I wanted to be pediatrician, and that I was headed to med school.'"
Henry's professor introduced her to the dean of the law school, and she soon sat for the Law School Admission Test. She graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law and passed the Arkansas Bar in 1984.
"I literally walked from the gym into the courtroom," she likes to say.
After law school she was a law clerk for Judge James G. Mixon in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern and Western District in Arkansas. In 1987, she joined Wright Lindsey & Jennings where she is a partner and, as a National Football League Players Association certified contract adviser, serves as the firm's sports law group leader.
Antwan Phillips, a partner at Wright Lindsey & Jennings, worked with Henry in the formation of the sports law practice at the firm.
"I literally begged her. I was like, 'Let me work with you because this seems exciting.' And it was exciting. We did a lot of work," says Phillips, who was recently elected to the Little Rock City Board of Directors. "We traveled all over the South, going to football games, meeting with families, meeting with players, meeting with coaches, meeting with scouts for NFL teams, really building that practice and trying to represent players who have more than meets the eye."
His participation came to a halt in 2013, he says, when NFL rules changed to prohibit nonagents from meeting with players. Henry's work as an agent continues.
"There are only maybe two, maybe three, people who are even trying to do it and, for what it's worth, I think Judy's doing it better than anyone, as it relates to NFL work," Phillips says. "It's good to have her as a partner and as a friend."
Charles Coleman joined the firm in 1980, and three years later he was asked to go to the University of Arkansas to interview law students, Henry included.
"She talked about her drive to excel and how she was not afraid of hard work," Coleman recalls. "She started talking about her career goals, and that she wanted to litigate major business disputes and advise CEOs and business board chairmen about their business issues and business disputes that they would have. I knew what it was like to be a young lawyer. I thought, 'What is this lady talking about?'"
The firm hired her to work for about six months between the time she graduated and started her clerkship with Mixon. She was hired back full time at the end of her clerkship.
"She has built an amazing practice here at the firm, and what I saw as unrealistic statements about what she wanted to do when she was a law student -- she worked hard, and they all came true," Coleman says. "It's amazing the amount of work that she can get done, and the amount of irons she has in the fire, and how she juggles her various responsibilities inside the office and out, and the results that she's able to obtain on those various activities -- legal matters, nonlegal matters, charitable causes, other responsibilities outside the office that she's able to accomplish."
Henry joined the Baptist Health Board of Trustees in 2000 and has been involved in or chaired several committees since then. She became chairman of the board in 2019.
"Judy is a tremendous leader and perhaps her most significant leadership quality is that she leads with her values and her strong Christian faith. Having her serve as chair during Baptist Health's 100th year is just so appropriate," says Troy Wells, president and chief executive officer of Baptist Health. "When I see Judy coming I always first recognize her warmth and kindness. Judy makes everyone feel good and feel welcome. She is just such a warm person. Another thing that stands out to me about Judy is her tenacity and focus on her work as a board chair or as a lawyer. As the CEO she certainly keeps me focused and on my toes, and she makes our entire board better from her presence and leadership. When you get Judy Henry on your team, whether it be your legal team or your board, you get all of her. Once she commits to something she is all in."
Baptist Health is celebrating its 100th anniversary on Feb. 16, the day the original Baptist State Hospital was legally incorporated in 1921. The hospital began operations in 1920 at a temporary location on 13th and Marshall streets in Little Rock on the heels of the Spanish flu pandemic and will begin its second century caring for covid-19 patients. In honor of its anniversary, the health system is preparing to launch a new Mobile Health Unit that will traverse the state offering free health services -- including the covid-19 vaccine -- to people in underserved communities.
Ed Choate, president and CEO of Delta Dental and a past chairman of the Baptist Health Board of Trustees, says Henry is invaluable on the board. Henry also provides legal advice to Delta Dental, he says.
"She's thorough, she asks the right questions, she wants to know exactly what business situation that we're facing and then she spends the right amount of time to understand the matter and then comes back to us with great advice on how we should be thinking about it and approach it and we can absolutely trust her to give us the best advice possible," says Choate, who remains a part of the board of trustees. "She's also somebody who is deeply spiritual, always seeks God's leadership in her life, and you can tell that in the way she conducts herself, and she expresses it through prayer, so you don't have to wonder where she's coming from, as an individual."
Henry remembers being invited to join the board of trustees at Baptist by then CEO Russ Harrington and the late Johnny Heflin, who was on the board then and who she knew from her church, Second Baptist Church in downtown Little Rock.
"Judy is an interesting combination of virtues in my mind," says her pastor, Preston Clegg. "I do speak to this as her pastor, but also just how I see her live and move in the world. She is breaking glass ceilings for women in a male-dominated field, and at the same time, is a servant of servants at Second Baptist, from keeping the nursery to visiting people in the hospital. She's incredibly successful, and yet utterly grounded as a person. Her greatness and her goodness haven't lost sight of each other."
Clegg says Henry has chaired several committees at Second Baptist and is currently the chairman of an advocacy task force at the church.
"Her career in law, her deep faith and her profound convictions all shape her leadership in that regard," he says. "We wouldn't be the same without her in the room."
Henry met one of her best friends, Elizabeth Campbell, at Second Baptist in 1983.
"She's smart and beautiful and talented and kind," Campbell says. "We've raised our children together and have been close friends and we taught Sunday School together and vacationed together and I just consider myself so lucky to have Judy as one of my best friends."
LEARNING FROM THE BOYS
Henry grew up in Texarkana, the middle of three children.
Her family owned a hardware and sporting goods store, which her father had bought from her uncle after he got out of the military. Her mother left a nursing career to help and they ran it to together for more than 50 years.
Henry lived in the same house from the time she was 4 years old until she left for the University of Central Arkansas in Conway to start her work on her undergraduate degree.
"It was a very stable environment in that our life revolved around family and church and then a community of their friends, a very small, tight-knit group," she says. "I learned how to claw nails and cut glass and thread pipe, flare copper pipe and buy and sell giftware at market and sporting goods -- I checked in deer and all kinds of game for the Game and Fish Commission, issued licenses, sold handguns, shotguns, rifles to hunters and a full array of sporting equipment."
Official team sports for girls were limited then, but she participated in any team activity she could on the playground or in physical education class at her elementary school.
"I liked being challenged, and I just loved team sports and I ended up learning from the boys," she says. "I would have my dress on with my shorts underneath it, just in case I needed to turn a cartwheel between first and second base. I would walk on my hands from second base to third base. I have vivid memories of combining my acrobatics with whatever sport I was doing."
A section of the book her graduate school professor gave her covered Title IX, passed by Congress in 1972, barring educational institutions from discriminating based on sex in educational programs or extracurricular activities.
"I remember vividly thinking, 'I've watched the implementation of Title IX,'" she says.
She started gymnastics classes in elementary school and when her school formed a team in sixth grade she joined. She was twice named an All-America Gymnast in high school and competed in gymnastics all the way through college, going to the UCA on a gymnastics scholarship.
Henry didn't tell her parents she was considering law school until after she had taken the law school entrance exam and found out she would be eligible for admission.
"I didn't have any money to pay the application fee to apply to law schools around the country," she says. "I said that I had been thinking about possibly changing my career path and studies and my dad said, 'Are you thinking about going to law school?' He said, 'We've always thought that that might be a good career path for you.'"
She met her husband, Cliff Henry, during the summer while she was a lifeguard at the Conway Country Club. He lettered for the Razorbacks from 1979 to 1981 and she got to watch him play in his last two seasons and in his last two bowl games.
Cliff Henry, also a lawyer, taught her to play golf, and they enjoy doing that together when they can.
Their son David is completing a joint medical and Ph.D. program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Their son Joseph played football for the Razorbacks and is now on the coaching staff at the University of Arkansas. He and his wife, Grace, have three children -- Linley, 9, Ford, 4, and Garrett, 6 months. Her grandchildren call her JuJu.
"My dad taught me how to shoot both a pistol and a shotgun. My family nurtured me in that way and my partners invite me and tolerate me along to duck hunting adventures and dove hunting adventures and have helped me to have opportunities to bird hunt," she says. "Cliff and I and our sons have hunted quite a bit ... so we could spend more time with them in their formative years as teens."
She enjoys skeet and trap shooting, like the Arkansas Charity Clays event set for Oct. 29 that will benefit Baptist Health Foundation.
HIGH PROFILE CASES
Henry interned with U.S. Sen. David Pryor in Washington between her first and second year in law school. While she was there she spent time with a close friend who was at home in Centerville, Va., and whose father played for the Washington Redskins, the nemesis team of her beloved Dallas Cowboys.
"Her dad knew of my sports background and being a student athlete and being interested in coaching and now being in law school and sort of the hook in the law school was sports law, and so he just welcomed the opportunity and gave me lots of time to sit down and visit with me about what it looked like to represent athletes and what was going on not just with the Redskins but in the NFL and in the league," she says. "He was just a wealth of information."
Henry has handled many interesting cases since then, including a $9.5 million jury trial verdict for emergency room physicians in August 2020 and a decade of concerns surrounding Tony Alamo that required digging through financial records to find assets that helped curtail human trafficking and child abuse among his followers.
Henry had taken on Razorback head football Coach Sam Pittman as a client in the fall of 2019, and she called Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek to put his name in the hat after Chad Morris was fired. She went on to negotiate Pittman's hire.
"It took me until 20 years later to kind of live out that dream where I went to law school wanting to represent athletes, and then focusing that on wanting to be involved in the football portion of a sports law practice, and then coming to the firm and the firm working with me to help develop that practice," Henry says. "Isn't that funny, to look back at your life and see all of these events have woven together to bring you where you are today? God places people in your lives and events, and if you will just stay in tune with that it can open doors that you might otherwise miss."
• PLACE OF BIRTH: Texarkana
• A BOOK I RECENTLY READ AND LIKED: "The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church's Complicity in Racism" by Jemar Tisby.
• A MOVIE I RECENTLY SAW AND ENJOYED: I never tire of watching "The Sound of Music."
• IF I HAD TO EAT THE SAME THING EVERY DAY IT WOULD BE: A salad with fruits, nuts and grilled salmon or chicken.
• TO RELAX I: Mow the lawn and piddle in the garden.
• MY KIDS WOULD SAY I'M: A pushover with our grandchildren.
• I THINK EVERYONE SHOULD: Recognize the humanity in all people.
• SOMEDAY I WANT TO: Learn other languages as [my sons] Joseph and David have. (Thank you Gibbs Magnet Elementary, Dunbar Magnet Middle and Central High!)
• SOMETHING FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT ME: For my first job in junior high, I bartered with a local dance studio by exchanging gymnastics lessons for ballet classes, which I desperately wanted.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Caring