Tuesday, February 15, 2011

TOP STORY >> J.M. Park: He helped build Cabot

Leader staff writer

J.M. Park was born by Cesarean section at Baptist Hospital 80 years ago. He died there early Saturday morning from an abdominal bleed that his body was unable to overcome. He was 80.

Although he was born and died in Little Rock, his life was in Cabot where he was known as a family man, a banker, a community leader, a humanitarian and, to a few, a good friend.

His life was a lot like the plot of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as the town’s residents look back and realize how much good he’d done for the community.

Former Lonoke County Judge Dude Spence, Park’s lifelong friend and hunting and fishing buddy, said Park could have been richer than he was. He could have bought a controlling interest in the Bank of Cabot after Fred Garlington, chief executive officer and a large stockholder, retired. He could have – but he chose not to.

“He could have controlled it but he said ‘no, it’s a community bank. It should belong to the community,’” Spence said. “He helped a lot of people and I was one of them.”

Park’s list of accomplishments is a long one. He was a graduate of the University of Arkansas and a veteran of the Korean War. In addition to working 41 years at the bank, much of that time as president and chairman of the board, he served on the city council and school board.

He served on the board of Central Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute (CARTI), the Arkansas Student Loan Authority, the Arkansas Independent Bankers Association and the board of Home Bancshares and he was a founding director of the Arkansas Bankers Bank, serving as president of its board at the time of his retirement in 1995.

Friends like Spence knew him as the banker who helped them when they needed it but also as the kid who sold milk from his Jersey cow, the bird hunter who wasn’t a very good shot and the ex-smoker who never completely got over the craving for cigarettes.

“I could smoke a cigarette a foot long,” Spence said Park remarked once from the front of the boat they were in. He didn’t elaborate because he was a man of few words, Spence said. And there was nothing more to say about it.

Spence said he was with his friend the day he lost his Rolex in a bayou.

“We hit a stump, and he fell out of the boat. We didn’t find the watch,” Spence said.

They fished on the Little Red River and at Des Arc, where Park had a trailer. They always went fishing on New Year’s Day regardless of the weather. And if they spent the night away from home, Park made the breakfast eggs because he thought his were the best.

Dearl Dixon, a farmer and another lifelong friend, said they often traveled out of state to hunt quail. Why Park liked to hunt was unclear, Dixon said, because he was never very good at it. Luckily, his favorite dog Bo was.

If Bo got tired of waiting for them to shoot, he’d go in after the birds himself, he said. And everyone knew that if not for that dog, Park would leave empty-handed.

Park was a private man, his friends say. And most of his good deeds will never be public.

Former Cabot Mayor Joe Allman served on the school board with Park 30 years ago and recalls the time the school didn’t have money for payroll.

“We’ll pay the teachers and I’ll cover it through the bank,” Allman said Park told the board.

So the teachers were paid on Friday and then about the middle of the next week, the money the school was expecting from the state repaid the bank.

The obituary written by Park’s family lists among his accomplishments that he was a member of the board for Lonoke County Safe Haven, the shelter for abused women and their children that was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2005.

What it doesn’t say is that Park was the driving force behind it. An article in The Leader made him aware that battered women were sent outside Lonoke County because there was no shelter available nearby. Park called the paper just to be sure that he hadn’t misunderstood and then took action.

He rounded up volunteers to form a board. The Park family hired lawyers to get the paperwork started for incorporation and Park went to the city council to try to get a house near the police station rezoned to allow a shelter to open.

When the council turned him down because of complaints from the neighbors, the shelter opened anyway in a borrowed house in a commercial area on the edge of town while the mayor and city council looked the other way and allowed it to happen.

Brenda Reynolds, shelter director, said Park mowed the large yard there with a push mower.

He also could be counted on as a chauffeur and to pick up supplies.

In 2010, the shelter housed 110 women and children and served 19 outreach clients, Reynolds said. Volunteers and staff also answered 2,500 phone calls.

“If it hadn’t been for him and his family, we wouldn’t have the shelter to help anybody,” she said.

In September 2008, the shelter moved to its current location, a new facility built and furnished by donations.

Park had tears in his eyes when he spoke during the dedication ceremony calling the new shelter a miracle.

“When we started back in ’04, I don’t think anyone thought we would ever get this far,” he told the group of city officials and volunteers who gathered in the large kitchen and dining room.

Then he quoted an old hymn that he said explained how they had been able to do so much in such a short time: “Ponder anew what the Almighty can do if with his love he befriends you.”

Allman, a board member for the shelter, commented on the fact that Park was known to be a little quirky. Sometimes he was talkative and sometimes he would pass acquaintances on the street without speaking.

“So much of the time, he had a lot on his mind,” Allman said. “You had to know J.M. He was one of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”

At about the same time that Park was getting the shelter started, he was also appointed to the newly formed commission that now runs the city’s water and wastewater departments as Cabot WaterWorks.

Bill Cypert, Cabot’s new mayor, was appointed at the same time and resigned in December to take on his new job. Cypert said Park was appointed for all the obvious reasons.

“He was the statesman for the commission,” Cypert said. “But he also had a passion to see Cabot have a reliable source of water.”

As a lifelong Cabot resident, Park had lived through the days when water was collected in cisterns. He knew that white shirts soon became beige from the city’s brown water, and he had seen days when there was not enough water for baths.

Water shortages were alleviated when Cabot built a waterline connecting to Jacksonville water about 20 years ago, and the city’s supply was ensured when a sales tax was approved about 10 years ago to dig six wells and build a new treatment plant.

But groundwater is seen as a temporary fix by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, which permitted the wells and told the city it must eventually get its water from the surface.

Cabot’s surface water will come from Lake Maumelle by way of a connection to Central Arkansas Water.

The water line is completed and waiting for CAW to complete the connection and Cypert said Park was anxious for the water to start flowing.

“He sat down with me many times and talked about that,” Cypert said. “He wanted a big celebration. Our part is done and we could have had the dedication, but we were waiting. He wanted a big celebration, and I wish now that we had had it.”