Fort Smith mayor says new park will help ‘create positive and lasting legacies’

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,524 views 

Libby Parker Finch, the great-great-great-granddaughter Judge Isaac Parker, gets her picture taken in front of Parker's statue at the dedication of Gateway Park Thursday. Finch is the daughter of Casey (Parker's great-great-granddaughter) and Matt Finch of Little Rock.

Fort Smith residents gathered Thursday (Oct. 17) to celebrate something new while remembering its past as 64.6 dedicated the new Gateway Park.

The park, located in the triangle of land in eastern downtown Fort Smith created by the intersection of Rogers and Garrison avenues, now boasts a seven-foot bronze statue of Judge Isaac C. Parker sitting in a chair reading a law book.

The statue sits on a four-foot stone pedestal, facing east. It is flanked by two other statues, all designed by Kansas City artist Spencer Schubert, depicting John Carnall and Mother Superior Mary Teresa Farrell. Carnall, born in 1818, was an early leader in the Fort Smith Public School system, and Farrell, who arrived in Fort Smith in 1853, was instrumental in bringing healthcare to the region.

“What a sight. What a wonderful day. … (This is) a cause to celebrate something brand new in Fort Smith. Something that will highlight our amazing history. Let me thank all the people of Fort Smith for the vision and generosity that brings these amazing projects to life. Gateway Park will be a welcome and a treasured addition to downtown Fort Smith,” Fort Smith Mayor McGill said at the dedication ceremony. “We now have Fort Smith downtown bookend by two of the greatest monuments in the state — Bass Reeves on the western end and now this facility.”

Organizers of the park wanted to depict three of the big components of Fort Smith’s history — law and order, education and healthcare — with the statues. The statue of Farrell stands facing Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, while Carnall’s statue is at the back. The park also features the United States and the Arkansas state flag. Cost for the statues was about $342,000.

McGill said the park, statues and plaques telling the stories will inspire future generations to lean of the legacies of Parker, Carnall and Farrell.

Students from the Future School of Fort Smith take a look at the statue of John Carnall at Gateway Park. Carnall was an early leader in the Fort Smith Public School system.

“It will challenge them to create positive and lasting legacies of their very own. As we gather here today, our schools, hospitals, businesses, factories and homes are filled with future legends of our community. It is comforting to know that they are part of our city and they are helping celebrate our past,” he said.

Retired Sebastian County Circuit Judge Jim Spears, one of those whose vision led to the creation of the park, told the approximately 250 attending Thursday’s celebration that neither the day nor the statue was to celebrate Parker as the “hanging judge” of the Old West as he is often referred.

“We’re here to celebrate Isaac Parker, the community citizen, the person who helped set up the school district in Fort Smith, helped to set up healthcare in Fort Smith, helped establish a bank in Fort Smith. His contributions go way above his legend as a frontier judge. He made a difference,” Spears said. “He is a hero to many. He is a hero to me.”

Along with city and state officials, Fort Smith business owners and residents, the Sisters of Mercy and area students, several of Parker’s descendants from Little Rock and the artist attending Thursday’s festivities.

“Fort Smith clearly is experiencing a renaissance, and it is a beautiful thing to behold,” Schubert said.

The $750,000 project is a private/public partnership, with the park being built with private funds and the city covering the cost of sidewalks, street lights and moving a water line. Prior to transferring ownership of the park to the City of Fort Smith Thursday, the project was managed by 64.6 Downtown, the group behind The Unexpected festival, Invest Fort Smith summit and other downtown promotions.

“Sixty-four point six has got me putting that point in there now. Because you can always point to something else they’ve done that makes this a great place. You can point to another venture. You can point to another vision. So I’m making a habit of putting that point in 64.6,” McGill said. “I thank them and the donors who made this wonderful inspirational tribute possible.”