The phone call Sunday morning from Joy Reed Belt was both surprising and heartbreaking — barely holding back the tears, she informed me that her husband, Paseo pioneer John Belt, had died.
I was shocked, saddened, and as stunned as anyone else. Most of those of us who knew John Belt were unaware he had been diagnosed with cancer just a few days earlier.
Doctors advised Belt he had a few months to live. Being such an active, vibrant visionary for so long, it was difficult to imagine Belt confined to a bed, slowly drained of energy until the end.
So in that respect, I'm grateful my friend was called upstairs after a relatively brief time in pain.
I knew of Belt long before we first became friends through our mutual interest in Oklahoma City's history. I first read a story of John Belt's investment in the Paseo through a 1991 story written by the late, great journalist Mary Jo Nelson.
The story was actually about Belt's decision to sell the pie-shaped Heierding Building at NW 5 and Harrison to architect Rand Elliott. The building, boarded up and burned out, was just around the corner from where I started my career — the old Oklahoman building at NW 4 and Broadway.
Nelson noted Belt bought old buildings, but had never before sold one — until trusting the Heierding to Elliott. It was a wise exception by Belt, and Elliott's loving restoration of the building, with all its quirks, makes it one of downtown's best examples of preservation.
I wasn't always certain that Elliott could pull it off — he had a relatively small shop at the time, the building was in bad shape, and years passed before the job was finished. But Belt was one of the city's most patient developers himself, having started a slow, tedious reconstruction of the blighted Spanish Village, one of the city's earliest suburban shopping corridors.
As I first got to know Belt a few years ago, I marveled at how long, and how patiently he had gone about acquiring properties, renovating them, and creating an environment where artists could live and operate working galleries. He carefully sought out restaurants and shops to add to the mix.
At one of our many visits at the restaurant now known as Picasso's, I stared across the street at the forlorn former home of the Spaghetti Factory. The building was a stark white blank canvass in the middle of an otherwise colorful mix of pastels and tile roofs. The building also was the largest on Paseo Drive, and a reminder of what the rest of the strip looked like before Belt's first building purchase in 1976.
The owners were known to be tough negotiators when it came to striking a deal. This would not be a cheap buy for anyone — especially someone like Belt, whose heart was worn on his sleeve.
A couple months later, Belt called me back. Life is short, he explained, and he decided it was indeed time to get the building (once the Paseo Plunge) and bring it back to life after 20 years of dormancy.
Belt then moved quickly to turn the nondescript building into his next artistic masterpiece. I was amused as he had to submit the building designs to the Downtown Design Review Committee, which had been set up just a few years earlier.
How, I wondered, could this group really tell Belt what was and wasn't an appropriate fit for the area when he was the master planner of it all for more than 30 years?
Belt never used that card on the committee members — he respectfully but firmly haggled with the group over their proposed changes. And the project went forward, even without a firm plan on the building's ultimate use.
The building wasn't an easy renovation project. It was huge, without a lot of windows, and built so solidly it would likely withstand a 7.0 earthquake.
We talked about this dilemma a few times. He pondered setting up musical practice studios in the virtually soundproof basement. He considered a balcony coffee shop or restaurant. An arts center, retail complex or community gathering spot all were on the list.
As noted by his friends, John Belt almost always wore a suit and tie amid the more casually dressed “funky” folks who populate the Paseo. Yes, he was an attorney tied to pretty powerful interests in this town. But at heart, he was still the song-and-dance man who thrilled audiences in college, community theater, and briefly, in New York City. He was an artist at heart. And the Paseo, with all its colorful buildings, artists, attractions and events, is the masterpiece that John Belt, the artist, has given Oklahoma City to enjoy for generations to come.
Thursday would have been John Belt's 77th birthday — and for his friends, family, and the community of Paseo, such timing allows for his memorial service to be the ultimate celebration of his life. The service will be at 3 p.m. Thursday at All Souls' Episcopal Church, 6400 N Pennsylvania Ave., and don't surprised if a big birthday party is held afterward throughout the Paseo.