“All of a sudden, everyone hears this big, baritone voice, and it reverberated throughout the entire building,” said Karen Orr, the gallery owner. “I can’t get that out of my head. There was no microphone, and it wasn’t required.”
Belt, an attorney and urban developer, was known for working behind the scenes and doing little to draw attention to himself. That’s what made his Christmas performance such a special memory, Orr said.
That recollection was one of many that Belt’s friends and family have shared since his death March 10.
Belt, 76, died at home in his sleep after a brief bout with cancer, but not before he left a lasting legacy as the primary figure in the restoration of the Paseo Arts District.
John W. Reagor Jr. is the chef at the Red Rooster, a neighborhood bar that Belt frequented to visit friends, make business plans and catch up on local gossip. Reagor had his own story about Belt and his compassion for others.
“I was mugged at gunpoint a few years ago and was beaten up pretty bad,” he said. “Apparently, John heard of the mugging and came up to me and said, ‘That’s a damn shame,’ and then began telling me the story of when he was mugged as a youngster. When he was finished, he laid out $35 and said, ‘Here you go, chef.’”
It was the amount of money Reagor’s attackers had stolen.
Belt, described by Orr as a “big, burly man with a big heart,” spent the last three decades revitalizing the Paseo. He began buying dilapidated, boarded-up buildings in the 1970s, renovated them over time and eventually found the right mix of business owners and artists to fulfill his dream.
The once-derelict area blossomed into a thriving art community. In 2010, it was rated as one of the top 10 neighborhoods in the nation by the American Planning Association, a nonprofit group for community developers.“Simply put, the Paseo Arts District would not exist without him,” said Jennifer Barron, the Paseo Arts Association executive director. “The district was built in 1929, and by the ’60s and ’70s, it was known to be dangerous. Lots of storefronts were closed and abandoned.”
Jim Miller, owner of Summer Wine Art Gallery, said Belt’s presence will be missed.
“It’s hard to imagine not seeing him driving down the street in his gray SUV, checking things out and talking to everyone,” Miller said.
Belt’s advocacy extended to public education. He helped start Harding Fine Arts Academy and was a supporter of nearby Edgemere Elementary.
Joe Jungmann, owner of Paseo Grill and one of Belt’s many tenants, was shocked that his friend died just a week after being diagnosed with cancer.
“I had a beer with him not even three weeks ago at the Red Rooster,” said Jungmann. “We were discussing plans we had for the future. We had a wonderful talk about the area.”Part of those plans involved the remodel of a large building known as the Plunge, which once housed a community swimming pool. Belt’s vision for the property included studios for working artists and musicians, and a coffee shop where people could relax.
“Unfortunately, he didn’t get to see it finished,” Barron said.
Still, construction workers have remained on the job, trying to fulfill Belt’s dream.
As the news of Belt’s passing spread, every business owner in Paseo was asked to place a colorful, artistic wreath on their front doors March 14, the day Belt was laid to rest.
“No black,” Orr said. “John liked a lot of color.”
The Paseo community, she added, wants to commission a brightly colored sculpture that can be placed in the island on Paseo Drive in Belt’s honor.
“We want to install lighting so it will be lit up all the time,” said Orr.
The family requested donations be made to the John Belt Memorial Fund at the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, one of many nonprofit groups he helped organize.
Additional reporting by Alyssa Grimley