Person of the Month: Donna Spears

By Dwain Hebda

There are jobs you take because you have to, and there are jobs you take because they’re next on the company ladder. And for a lucky few, there are passion projects that come along that don’t feel like a job at all, even though they demand as much of your time and skill as any other.

Donna Merritt Spears is one of those lucky ones who got to do something for a living that came straight from the heart. As a founder of 501 LIFE Magazine, she was one of the three driving forces behind a monthly magazine that 15 years later is still considered a hallmark in the communities it reaches throughout Central Arkansas.

“I remember when we started the magazine, I left the Log Cabin Democrat newspaper after 28-plus years and walked down the street,” she said. “Our office was located in downtown Conway. We were in a little area probably about a 10-by-12 room with three computers and a printer. In less than two years we moved into a 2,000 sq. ft. building to accommodate the fast growth.

Photos by Makenzie Evans

“It was 2008, so it wasn’t the best year to start a business. We had a few people tell us, ‘Oh you guys do not need to do this at all. This is a horrible time.’ But we just felt like it was the right thing to do and we were all very much in prayer about it. We had more people encouraging us and willing to support our efforts to bring the community a much-needed publication to show off the great life we experience in the 501 area.” 

The magazine grew out of another venture, Women’s Inc., which Spears, advertising director at the Log Cabin started. As that venture grew, Spears began to entertain the idea of building something of her own instead of working for someone else. She called a friend, Sonja Keith, who was the former editor at the Log Cabin and had many years of experience as a writer. Sonja was well thought of in the community and certainly a professional that could make things happen. 

“‘Hey, I have this idea,’” she said, recalling the pitch she made to Keith. “We went back and forth about whether we should do it or not, because I was looking more at the retirement side of my career and spending time with my family: Justin, Dena, Madi, Wesley and Weston Spears. I’ve always had the drive to be my own boss, and I’m very much a self-starter. I don’t need someone to tell me to get up and go to work every day. I inherited the work ethic from my parents (the late Bill and Betty Merritt) who always insisted there was no such thing as a free lunch.”

Spears also contacted Tracy Ferrell, who became one of the three initial owners. Ferrell had worked with Spears at the Log Cabin and was a hometown lady who was loved by many. “Her customer service and advertising skills were instrumental in growing the magazine early on,” Spears said. 

Part of the success formula from the very beginning was listening to what the community wanted, something the new venture codified with the creation of a board of business owners, advertisers, community leaders, friends, and family to provide feedback on editorial matters, a tradition that continues to this day. 

“We’d have meetings where we sat down and listened to them,” she said. “We got their support as well as being our eyes and ears in the community. Everyone was so good about calling us and saying, ‘You really need to do a story about this,’ or ‘There’s a new business you might be interested in contacting.’ There were a lot of people who wanted to be a part of it, and we were blessed by that.”

Donna Spears stands with the first and most recent copies of 501 LIFE, published 15 years apart.

Spears and Keith would hand over the reins to the magazine in 2020 to current owners Stefanie Brazile and Jeremy Higginbotham, who said the mentorship and advice offered by the duo has been instrumental to the publication’s smooth transition. 

Spears also keeps her hand in the advertising side, and her continued presence has provided a welcome sounding board for the new leadership.

“Jeremy and I have benefited from Donna’s knowledge and expertise,” said Brazile, editor. “Donna is a knowledgeable professional with an easy laugh. She has worked and raised her family in the 501 and either knows or is related to just about everyone. We are fortunate that she is part of our team.” 

As for the longevity of the publication itself, Spears said it comes down to community spirit and pride of place. “People still like to have that nice glossy magazine in their hands,” she said. “No matter how many are printed each month, very few times are there returns. People like to have it because it’s good news, even though we have had some sad stories from time to time. We just love telling the stories of everyday life in the 501.

“The magazine is in good hands now. I think people look at it and enjoy taking it with them wherever they go because 501 LIFE says, ‘This is who I am, this is the positive atmosphere I live in, this is my community.’ No matter where I go, people still say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a great story for you,’ or ‘How do I get my child in there?’ I think it’s just a good news thing that people like having in their hands and they like to keep. That’s what I’m most proud of, how it became the people’s magazine.”

Dwain Hebda