Bell takes off

By Tammy Keith

Jack Bell’s longtime service to his hometown of Conway had its lows, such as tracking down a missing 54-foot Christmas tree, but he ended it on a high as director of the airport.

“I really do love it out here,” Bell said.

The 69-year-old said he held off until Feb. 28 to retire from the Conway Regional Airport at Cantrell Field because he wanted to see two major projects completed, the construction of 12 T-hangars and of a maintenance/avionics facility. “Those two projects are huge, and I wanted to see them through,” he said.

The airport opened in 2014, and Bell was involved from its inception.

Bell’s trajectory with the city began 41 years ago when he was elected to the Conway City Council. He was then a school psychologist for the Conway School District, a career path he credited to the Lord. “It worked out great,” he said.

Bell served under four mayors and for a total of 23 1/2 years on the council, often dealing with hot-button topics. His personality was a strength in that position. “As a psychologist, you learn to listen,” Bell said.

When Bell decided in 2008 it was time for a career change after 31 years in education, he mentioned it while socializing with then-Mayor Tab Townsell.

Townsell offered Bell a job on the spot. “Knowing everyone in city government and in the city’s political, economic and social networks? Generally one of the best-liked guys in town, and no known enemies. Just a good dude. This was a no-brainer,” Townsell said.

Bell became chief of staff, and Townsell said there was nothing Bell couldn’t handle. “He was literally my Jack-of-all-trades,” Townsell said. After the death of a City of Conway Department of Sanitation director, Townsell tapped Bell as interim director.

“I really enjoyed that; there are great people out there,” Bell said. “Everything ran smoothly; I just kept it status quo. We were able to find Joe Hopper, and he has done an awesome job,” Bell said of the current director.

Bell was Mayor Bart Castleberry’s chief of staff until, in August of 2020, he asked Bell to fill the airport director vacancy. Castleberry said complaints from pilots stopped within three days of Bell taking over. 

“Jack just has a real skill in working with people,” Castleberry said. “He doesn’t easily anger, and he’s just really good at listening to both sides and coming up with a solution. He always puts Conway first and has always done a tremendous job.”

Bell was involved in the creation of the Boys & Girls Club of Faulkner County and served as the founding board president. He was also involved in the new baseball and softball parks, which included building the Faulkner County Fairgrounds and Expo Center. He listed his favorite accomplishments as the historic Springfield-Des Arc Bridge being refurbished and relocated to Beaverfork Lake Park in Conway; the Toad Suck Ferry being returned from Bull Shoals Lake to Faulkner County; and the purchase in 2013 of the 54-foot artificial Conway Christmas tree, which is erected each year in downtown Conway. “Those three things I’m going to look back on with pride,” Bell said.

One year, though, all was not merry and bright with the Christmas tree. The lights stopped working, and the tree was sent back to the company in Springdale for repairs. Then the company closed, leaving the city treeless and clueless. Bell and Steve Ibbotson, the city’s director of parks and recreation, tracked down the tree, which was in an unlocked trailer on the defunct company’s parking lot. The men arranged for it to be returned to Conway, where it is now annually displayed at Christmas in Rogers Plaza Town Center.

“I’m still proud of that tree,” he said, adding that Rogers Plaza also is “a huge source of pride.”

“We’ve had many people propose in front of the tree, take their family Christmas pictures in front of it. It’s been good. I think we’re still the tallest Christmas tree in Arkansas. Now we have a whole little festival around it with a Ferris wheel and all that,” Bell said.

Bell said goodbye to the airport job, but not the city. He is a familiar face on nonprofit boards and in the Kiwanis Club. He and his wife, Ginny, plan to spend time with their grandchildren and travel the world, but Conway is their favorite landing place.

“It’s home and always will be,” he said.