Jim, Craig and Bass: How an idea became a monument
Breaking ground for the plinth in April, baridi Nkokheli in character as Bass Reeves (from left) with initiative members George McGill and Tonya Nkokheli. Craig Pair, chairman, is at far right.
by Linda Seubold
How could nearly $300,000 be raised locally, during an ongoing economic downturn, to establish a monument to a former slave who had the true grit to help bring law and order to Fort Smith and the Western frontier in the late 1800s?
Craig Pair and Jim Spears should know. For the last six years, they have devoted most of their waking hours - aside from their jobs and family duties - to helping the Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative establish the statue of deputy U.S. marshal Bass Reeves that will be unveiled this month in downtown Fort Smith, Ark.
Pair is a local business owner. Spears is a history enthusiast and Sebastian County circuit judge who has long hoped to see historic statuary art erected in Fort Smith. He especially has wanted to see an equestrian statue of a hero from the city's Western frontier days located downtown.
Many brave men who served as deputy U.S. marshals for federal Judge Isaac C. Parker during the late 1800s also could have been worthy candidates. But Spears began focusing on Reeves after hearing Fort Smith National Historic Site superintendent Bill Black's reasons for hoping Reeves would someday be honored with a statue in Pendergraft Park, which is adjacent to Parker's restored courthouse at the historic site.
Spears then volunteered Pair, his friend and fellow Rotarian, to head the formation of the nonprofit Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative in 2006. Pair served as chairman.
The organization's goal was simple: Raise about $300,000 to fund the creation and installation of a larger-than-life-sized bronze statue of Reeves riding west from Fort Smith into Indian Territory. When Reeves retired in 1907, with 32 years in the Marshals Service, he was one of the most effective, feared and respected lawmen of his era.
"Our first three donations included $100 from a Fort Smith woman, $1,000 from Cook Elementary School students and several thousand dollars from the local Westerners organization," Pair recently recalled.
Discovering a present-day Bass
When Spears met the new department head of Fort Smith's Sanitation and Landfill operations, T. Baridi Nkokheli, he knew he had discovered the perfect Bass Reeves look-alike to help tell Reeves' story. After Nkokheli realized his amazing physical resemblance to Reeves, Spears was able to convince the newcomer from Los Angeles to start portraying Reeves, beginning with the 2007 Old Fort Days Rodeo Parade.
"That's when Fort Smith really started getting introduced to Bass Reeves," Pair recalled. "When Jim and Baridi started visiting Fort Smith schools, Baridi was like a rock star to the kids. He would talk to them like he thought Bass would, and say things like, 'You kids get back in line now; mind your teachers and parents; do your school work; be honest; don't grow up to be the kind of people I had to arrest.' And the kids all loved it. "
Gaining momentum and an artist
By the end of 2007, several local residents and businesses came up with contributions ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 to help Legacy Initiative members begin the search for a well-known artist/sculptor.
"Those donations really gave us the boost we needed at that time," Pair explained. "With local school kids, residents and businesses believing in the project, we all had to stay committed."
After noted Western artist and sculptor Harold T. Holden was hired to create the statue, fundraising efforts increased again through ticket sales from separate raffles of replicas of the Colt pistol and Winchester rifle Reeves used.
Spears said many other donations were inspired by a citywide reading of a new children's book about Reeves to fifth- and sixth-graders by more than 80 volunteers organized by Julie Moncrief.
The Bass Reeves Reading Program educated both the adults who read aloud and the children to whom they read.
"I would say our average gift overall was about $100, but the large gifts always seemed to come just when they were most needed," Pair said. "But there were also lots of $5 and $20 donations, and donations from so many schoolchildren. I especially remember the 146 pounds of pennies from Ballman Elementary School."
All the members of the Legacy Initiative, including Nkokheli's wife, Tonya, have worked hard on the project. Nkokheli has traveled most, "being Bass," Pair noted. He portrayed Bass in Oklahoma City - where, in 1992, the real lawman became the first African-American inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
"We've met with all kinds of people - even Morgan Freeman, who was very polite and interested but very noncommittal about (being interested in making a movie about) Bass," Pair added. "But with the exception of a few people out of town who have contributed or bought raffle tickets, it was our whole community that stepped up and got this done."
Descendants join the effort
Reeves' great-nephew, retired federal administrative law Judge John Brady of Atlanta, is one out-of-towner thrilled with the project. He not only contributed to the statue, Brady also donated one of his great-uncle's deputy marshal badges and Colt pistols to the U.S. Marshals Museum that is to be built on the Arkansas River several blocks north of the Reeves monument. Brady and his wife, Xernona, also plan to attend the dedication of the statue on May 26.
"I'm just sorry my older family members in Van Buren and Fort Smith - my dad's sisters Kate and Mattie and Aunt Kate's daughter, Mildred - have passed away and won't be able to see the statue," Brady, 84, said during a recent telephone interview.
"Years ago, when I first visited Fort Smith, I couldn't have imagined this happening. At that time, there wasn't that much known about Bass, but one of the historic site rangers was interested in him and helped me start my first research on Great-Uncle Bass outside of our own family history."
As Holden's sculpture went to the foundry to be cast in bronze, the local committee began to prepare the plinth on which it will stand and Pair was surprised by making another hometown history connection.
The monument base will be "faced" with original curbstones recently removed from Garrison Avenue and, thankfully, saved. When Pair contacted a stonemason, the mason introduced him to the Ibison family of Hackett. Mark Ibison volunteered to cut and prepare the massive curbstones at no charge because he believes the stone originally came from the family's quarry, which was started by his father and grandfather.
Celebrating the installation at last
In addition to the 10:30 a.m. unveiling ceremony May 26, a celebration surrounding the monument will be taking place in Fort Smith May 18-27. Link here for the events.
"We can all be proud that this statue is something that really belongs to this community," Pair said. "We did it ourselves with no grants, no government funds, just donations from us and our neighbors. It belongs to us."