Sunday in our park with our George

April 8th, 2022

George Cates

(published in The Daily Memphian, April 1, 2022)

(photo: George Cates)

Sunday, I took a walk in the park with George. Actually, I took that walk in my mind and George wasn’t actually with me. But whenever I think about the park, George is with me.

George is no longer with us, but George is with us in every step taken, in every tree, every blade of grass, every kid’s first swing, every frisbee thrown and kite flown in Overton Park.

With apologies to Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics to the Broadway super hit Sunday in the Park with George, and to George Seurat, who painted the pointillist masterpiece that inspired the musical, A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, we have our own inspiration and our own master and masterpiece.

Like a Broadway musical, there are a zillion moving parts to a park. If they are to work, if the whole audience is to be moved, all those parts have to move as one, a synchronized effort for maximum effect, true to the music and book, true to the inspiration.

Like a painting, there are endless possibilities to the interpretation of a park. Once the medium is chosen, the pigments mixed, the strokes begun, only the artist sets the course and knows when the journey is done, true to the vision, true to the inspiration.

George Cates made Overton Park a song again. George Cates found a lost masterpiece and restored it. His quiet servant leadership was art. His final canvas is an inspiration.

He left it to us.

Before George, paths were litter-covered, vine-choked obstacle courses. Invasive species ruled the forest floor and defined its ugly edges. Weeds overpowered grass. Fairways and greens were neither. Old forest disappeared behind new chain link. Things and threats that didn’t belong lurked in the shadows. Political support had run away to hide.

Greensward turned into parking spaces. Parking spaces turned into ruts in mud.

Goodwill turned into ill will. Our park turned into a battlefield.

After George, our park has turned around, picked itself up, cleaned up, dressed up, improved its behavior, and gotten in a much better mood.

We have new recognition, designation, and protection for our old growth forest. We have a new golf course on storied ground drawing the attention of the whole golf world. We have new management at the zoo and a new boss who not only doesn’t want to fight and take more of our stuff, he ended the fight and gave our stuff back. We have a bold new plan for Rust Hall that’s well on its way to reality. We have new political support and cooperation and, be assured, we will soon have new people looking for credit for all of the above.

After George, we have our park back, and hopefully we’ll never turn our back on it again.

After retiring from the company he started, headed, and took public, Mid-America Apartment Communities, George turned his attention and vision toward volunteering where he might prove helpful. Over the last 20 years or so, and every day until he was tragically lost in a plane crash, George’s steady hand and huge heart have helped guide so much that so many can be thankful for – minority businesses, the arts, start-ups, and the founding and nursing of the Overton Park Conservancy.

Of course, all the people who have worked for and supported the causes that George championed, the passion shown in the realization of peace in our time between the zoo and the park, the saving of a little golf course with a huge history – all of that and more and all responsible deserve recognition.

George Cates would agree with that, in fact insist upon it, and would further insist on no recognition at all as the common denominator.

Full disclosure.

George Cates is the father of Andy Cates, and Andy is the Chairman of the Board of Memphis Fourth Estate, the 501(c)3 nonprofit which owns and oversees The Daily Memphian. He’s reading this column for the first time along with you, and he and his brother Staley, also quietly and meaningfully involved in the city, would probably rather I hadn’t written it. They are their father’s sons.

But this is an opinion piece, and it is my opinion that George Cates has left us a great leadership model, a great gift, a great legacy, and a great promise.

We owe it to him to acknowledge it, and we owe it to him and ourselves to keep it.

George probably wishes I hadn’t written this, too.

I’m a Memphian, and he and I will have to talk about that on our next walk in the park.


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