An overdue thank you

Last month, at the age of 97, longtime Conway businessman and philanthropist Felton O’Kelley died. Mr. O’Kelley built several successful businesses and served on a number of local civic and charitable boards. Any of those contributions are worthy of lengthy discussion. But we want to share a story about one single decision, made by Mr. O’Kelley alone, that permanently changed the course of Conway’s economic future.

Mr. O’Kelley’s early professional successes were in the concrete and construction trades. One day in the early 1960’s, he was contacted by an out-of-state team of surveyors and engineers. It seems that the very public and political discussions of exactly where to put interstate 40 had been discretely and quietly made. These surveyors needed concrete markers to designate the center-line through the then-undeveloped route. Mr. O’Kelley’s business was the logical local vendor.

So understand, that for a brief moment in time, Felton O’Kelley had the means and opportunity to singularly capitalize on this priceless information. The only thing standing in the way was his own darned civic-mindedness. You see—Mr. O’Kelley served on the Conway Development Corporation (CDC) board. That still-young organization was in the midst of discussing how to best provide for Conway’s economic future.

Rather than personally profit from his “insider knowledge” Mr. O’Kelley advised the board that an industrial park adjacent the new interstate would give Conway a huge head start towards recruiting manufacturers. You can probably figure out the rest of the story. The CDC did develop that industrial park. It was the first one in Arkansas to be owned by a non-profit for the benefit of the community. And it was and is a success by any measure.

But for a brief window of time 50 years ago, all that success hung in the balance as a good man chose to put his community’s prosperity above his own.