The Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Commission voted at its January meeting Wednesday (Jan. 12) to send a recommendation to the Fort Smith Board of Directors to name the city’s sports fields along Riverfront Drive that the John Bell Jr. Park.
The naming of the park must now be approved by the Fort Smith Board of Directors.
The park, located at 3700 Riverfront Drive near the Arkansas River and just north of downtown Fort Smith, has 51 acres with soccer fields and options for future expansion. The park also has an inclusive playground under construction. The land for the park was purchased with private donations, a state appropriation, and city funds.
The commission considered the top three naming nominations submitted by each commissioner – John Bell Jr., Robbie Westphal, and Riverview Park – at the December meeting, with John Bell Jr. leading the list. The city accepted feedback regarding the naming of the park through Tuesday (Jan. 11). Chris Raible noted Wednesday they had received 21 comments from the public in favor of the name.
“I don’t know if you guys had the chance to really look through all the comments on that,” Raible siad. “I really like the one from Lisa Bell Wilson (the daughter of Maxine and John Bell Jr.). I just wanted to comment on one thing she said that her dad said, ‘Children may access the playground in different ways, but their laughter all sounds the same.’ That needs to be somewhere.”
Bell, who died in November 2013 at the age of 76 following a battle with cancer, grew up in Fort Smith and was a graduate of Northside High School in Fort Smith and the University of Arkansas. The artist had a muscle palsy and was confined to a wheelchair most of his life and had limited use of his arms and hands. Despite the disability, his artworks are in many homes, businesses and art galleries around the country. He was invited to exhibit his works at one-artist shows in many cities, including Little Rock, Memphis, New Orleans, Omaha and Washington, D.C.
Bell also painted an image of Roy Acuff on a special fiddle that was presented to the legendary country music entertainer. The fiddle is now part of the collection at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
Bell was commissioned to do work for numerous individuals and institutions, including the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, the University of Arkansas, First National Bank of Fort Smith, Baldor Electric Co., and Subiaco Academy. Bell’s work was also a key element in a television documentary about War Eagle Mill that was produced by Larry Foley, an Emmy Award-winning professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas.
At the time of Bell’s death, U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., praised Bell for his perseverance.
“John’s impact on Arkansas will be long lasting. He brought the images of the region to life through his work. We are blessed by John’s wonderful art which will serve as a reminder of his determination, perseverance and achievements. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife Maxine and his family and friends during this difficult time,” Boozman said in a statement.