by | Jun 1, 2011 | Features

When Judy Coffman Thacker approached long-time Russellville businessman Troy Burris about the possibility of creating a pocket park on the downtown corner property he owned, neither one realized it would be one of the last altruistic endeavors she would make.
Judy, a tireless community advocate and charter board member of the Main Street Russellville program, would ironically perish – along with five of her fellow Russellville- area travelers – in the June 1, 1999, fateful Little Rock crash of American Airlines Flight 1420. The tragedy occurred just days before the first official meeting between the Burris Family and Main Street board members scheduled for early June.
The initial conversation held prior to Judy’s trip to Europe projected the board’s dreams of seeing the lot – which once housed the original Burris Office Supply business – become a wonderful green space. Because of its prime location and high visibility at the intersection of two state highways, the spot could provide a welcoming gateway into Russellville. Burris, extremely civic-minded himself, agreed with Judy that the spot could become a source of community pride as an important civic landmark.

Troy and wife Marjorie Burris were long- time residents of Russellville. Their family- owned business has been an anchor in the downtown community since it began as a small typewriter store in 1953.
Troy’s brother Roy worked with him in the family business during those early years. In fact, the Burris’ daughter Troylynn and husband Roy McSpadden lived upstairs over the original store after they were first married. Recalling evenings of sitting in the former location, the pair enjoyed the lights of the cars driving by the intersection of Highways 7 and 64, and are considered Russellville’s “pioneers in Upper Floor Development.”

Years later, when, in 1985, the Burris moved their business from this location to new quarters across the street, the highly visible corner lot was deemed perfect for a pocket park.
Eleven lives lost – six from the Russellville area alone – less than a week prior to the meeting to discuss plans for the potential park – lead the Burris Family to make the decision to donate the property to Main Street Russellville for the creation of a lasting tribute and fitting memorial to their friends and loved ones.

In addition to Judy Thacker, 53, a vice president of River Valley Bank who led a group of local travelers on a tour of Europe the week prior to the fateful crash, those lost included: Sue Gray, 78, a retired Russellville School teacher; Betty Ingram, 69, of Russellville, a retired administrative assistant; Mary Elizabeth Couch, 68, a retired teacher living in Havana; Gordon McLerran, 64, a retired chemist, and his wife, Joyce McLerran, 65, a former insurance associate and avid potter.
A memorial now on their mind, members of the Burris Family and the Main Street Board met in the days following the crash, deciding to push forward not only the pocket-park plan but the newly-fueled objective to create a lasting tribute to the lives of the six civic-minded members.

The Burris Memorial Plaza Committee was formed and included representatives of the Burris family, the families of the victims, design professionals, officials representing the City of Russellville and board members of Main Street Russellville. The committee oversaw all stages of the project — from design development to construction, including plans for perpetual maintenance and continued development. Original committee members included Arnold Bowden, survivor and close friend of many who perished; Tim Hale, Burris Family representative; Cliff Kirchner, City Council Representative; Peggy Talkington, MSR Board President; Camille Thurlby, design committee chairman, and Betsy McGuire. MSR Director.

A committee advisory board to ensure the park’s long term operation and management included many of the above as well as representatives of the City, the Parks and Recreations director, several aldermen serving as liaisons to the Parks Department, and director and representatives of the Main Street Russellville program and its design committee. The project’s groundbreaking ceremony was held October 9, 1999.
Located at 101 West Main Street in the southwest corner of Main Street (Highway 64) and Arkansas Avenue (Highway 7) the park was built in the two years following the tragedy and dedicated on the second anniversary of the crash – June 1, 2001 – in a poignant ceremony befitting the memory of the six.
Funding was a necessary ingredient in order to be able to move forward with the project, and Main Street Russellville did not have the resources to purchase the space.
“We called upon the benevolent nature of Mr. Troy Burris who donated the green space for the project,” board members gratefully acknowledged.
Andy Kinslow of Integrated Space Design, Inc. of Tulsa, Okla., a cousin to Judy Thacker, donated the design. He served as project and conceptual design landscape architect.
Project Engineer and Contractor Don Johnston, P.E. of Johnston Engineering coordinated the project on a very tight budget who gave countless hours of time and labor without compensation.
The dedication program contained the names of many who provided services for the project, but countless individuals and businesses, large and small, private and corporate, gave generously to establish the lasting memorial.
MSR had an additional $3,500 that was obtained through grant funds from the State of Arkansas earmarked as matching funds for a park project on the property.
Much of the time, materials and labor were either donated or discounted. However, in project records, the plaza, (excluding land donation) was projected to cost the following: Arbor: $20,000 (actual: $14,500); concrete, $6,750, (actual $7,250); precast material and labor, $7,650, (actual $2,100); electrical, $10,000, ($800 with one bill outstanding); bricklaying, none budgeted, (actual $3,000); fill dirt, $1,500, (actual none); pump system, $18,000 (actual $18,000); Bronze Sculpture, $4,000, (actual $4,000); Landscaping, trees: $6,500, (actual $6,500.) Other landscaping miscellaneous was not shown.
In September of 2000, monetary donations, which included $40,000 from American Airlines and $25,000 from Collette Tours, totaled just under $80,000.
The park was built “with love, from the smallest gift to the largest, every donation was a cog in the wheel,” said Peggy Talkington, MSR board president at the time of the dedication. Recognizing that the area was designated as a remembrance, to bring comfort and peace, Talkington acknowledged establishing a green space in the downtown corridor had been an objective when Judy Thacker and the board first began discussing the Burris property two years earlier.

“Memorials cannot take away the sorrow, emptiness or pain, but they can make a place in time to express the value of lives lost and assure the memory for years to come,” Talkington told those gathered at the dedication.
Arnold Bowden echoed his sentiments: “My job is reflections of what happened.” He told of 45 travelers and 14 days spent touring the beautiful countryside of England, Wales and Scotland in beautiful free verse, chronicling their return which led them down different paths on the journey home.
“All six were a special part of this community, business, education, the arts and community development,” recalled Bowden during the dedication. “In their travels they sought out places of beauty. The Burris Memorial Plaza would be pleasing to all of them.”
Symbolism abounds within the plaza’s 6,000-square-foot boundary. The arbor, which features six benches and six evergreen trees standing behind each serves as an everlasting memory for each person lost. The six spouts emitting from thefountainsignifyeachperson’slife.White flowers planted in the plaza represented purity and resurrection.
Children of Peace, the bronze sculpture of a young boy and girl reaching skyward with doves, was created by nationally- known artist Gary Price, “instills that feeling of hope and inspiration that we wanted people to take away from visiting the plaza.”
Six fountains at the base of the sculpture spray water at varying angles representing the varying personalities of the victims. Problems with the fountain pump and/or drainage currently prevent it from working.
Burris Memorial Park won the 2002 Main Street Arkansas award for the Best Downtown Public Improvement Project and was featured on the cover of City & Town. The award, honoring the Main Street organization or municipality that has designed and implemented quality physical improvements, was presented by Senator Blanche Lincoln during the Arkansas Municipal League annual conference in Hot Springs.

MSR is the property owner of Burris Memorial Plaza. A warranty deed was issued between Troy Burris and Marjorie Burris, conveyed to Main Street Russellville, an Arkansas non-profit corporation, on Dec. 30, 1999.
Memorial planners said American Airlines contributed $10,000 for the McLerran Memorial Water Garden also dedicated June 1, 2001, at the Arkansas River Valley Arts Center, 1001 East B St. The garden, designed by arts center artist-in-residence Winston Taylor, was created as a tribute to Gordon and Joyce McLerran and as a place where community members could ‘relax, find peace, pray or simply enjoy.”
The Burris Memorial Plaza Maintenance Endowment was established in April 2006 between the Arkansas Community Foundation, Inc, and Main Street Russellville. The fund was designated for maintenance that includes landscaping, insurance, sprinkler system and monthly utilities. However, over the past decade, contributions have dwindled.
To make a memorial contribution to the maintenance fund, please contact Main Street Russellville at (479) 967-1437. Donations made to Burris Memorial Park are tax deductible as Main Street Russellville is a 501(c)3 organization.  

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