John Belt, a longtime advocate of local arts, education, the philanthropic community and developer of Oklahoma City’s Paseo neighborhood, died Sunday morning after a brief bout with cancer. He was 76.
As an attorney, Belt played a key role in the formation and development of 40 local nonprofits, including the Oklahoma City Community Foundation.
Nancy Anthony, director of the Community Foundation, noted Belt often worked pro bono for her organization, and gave freely of his time to many area causes.
“He was invaluable, did so much for us,” Anthony said. “He had a great sense of balance in making sure things were legally right yet still fit what people needed to make their charity and philanthropy meaningful.”
Belt also played a key role in the creation of Harding Fine Arts Academy.
In 2003, when Oklahoma City Public Schools closed Harding Middle School, located just blocks from Paseo, Belt gathered a group of community leaders to consider the possibility of founding a charter high school in the building.
Belt may be best known for his efforts over three decades to revive Spanish Village, a faded commercial corridor, into Paseo, an arts district that is home to 20 galleries and working studios. The district, located between NW 28, NW 30, Walker and Dewey Avenues, also is home to gift and clothing shops, an event center, live theater, restaurants and bars.
Belt’s efforts to revive Paseo started in 1976 when he was dismayed to learn a favorite sandwich shop where he often ate lunch was about to be closed by a neighbor who planned to buy the building and use it for storage.
In a quick cash upfront deal, Belt did the deal instead, and the restaurant stayed put. More deals followed. As Belt renovated one building after another in the former Spanish Village, artists opened up galleries and the neighborhood enjoyed a slow but steady rise from blight.
In 2010 the Paseo was named one of the Top Ten Greatest Neighborhoods in America by the American Planning Association, one of America’s Top Revitalized Neighborhoods by Forbes Magazine and in 2011, the BBC listed Paseo as one of the Most Beautiful Neighborhoods in the United States.
“He just loved artists,” explained Diane Coady, Ö a gallery owner along Paseo for more than 20 years. “He loved funky people. He enjoyed them, he enjoyed that variety, almost the circus, the fantasy element of Paseo. It affects people, and John had it badly. It’s the Paseo mystique.”
Former Oklahoma City Mayor Andy Coats, a friend of Belt since they attended Classen High School some 60 years ago, said Belt was always passionate about the arts and performed in several plays while at the University of Oklahoma and then, in the late 1960s, at Lyric Theater.
“He was a fine singer, and was in New York for two or three years,” Coats said. “Having watched him on the stage, he had the ability to be a top player in musicals. He could pick up a show and carry it. He was a song and dance man.”
Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Yvonne Kauger first met Belt as fellow Lyric Theater board members and was dazzled by his performance as Professor Henry Higgins in a production of “My Fair Lady.”
“He just wanted to make things better,” Kauger said. “He loved the arts.”
Anthony believes it was a desire to create a community of people with a common interest in the arts, and not simply an interest in renovating old buildings.
“He enjoyed all the crazy and weird and funny people there were,” Anthony said. “He liked all that. He was always very proper in suit and tie, and yet always enjoyed the guy covered in tattoos. He enjoyed the need for diversity, especially with the arts, and added some zest for life.”
Belt is survived by his wife, Joy Reed Belt, son John L. “Jake” Belt II and daughter-in-law Brandi Belt, and son Dan Belt. Services were pending with Smith & Kernke.
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