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.
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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.