John Robert Arnold, 94, died Wednesday at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo. For decades, Arnold made his mark in Starkville, in business, nonprofit work and as a Sunday school teacher at First United Methodist Church. Many knew Arnold for his voice and outgoing personality, as he helped found the Arnold Peters Happy Singers group that performed for more than 20 years across the Golden Triangle. Photo by: Photograph by Masa Hensley for Catfish Alley
August 24, 2017 10:42:03 AM
Those close to John Robert Arnold, a prolific Oktibbeha County businessman with strong ties to the local Boy Scouts troop and First United Methodist Church, say they remember him as a man with a song in his heart -- and one for everyone else.
Arnold routinely drove a flatbed truck in Starkville's annual Christmas parade, towing college students and other participants down Main Street as they sang carols through an amplified speaker.
One year, his vehicle came to a grinding halt near FUMC when it experienced trouble with its brakes.
"He and another person jumped out with tools, let the pressure out and rolled through the rest of the parade without brakes. Apparently it wasn't the first time it happened, and it certainly wasn't going to stop them then. They kept on singing," said Allen McBroom, a co-owner of Backstage Music who knew Arnold through their mutual support of the local Boy Scout Troop 45.
Arnold, 94, died Wednesday at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo after complications from a fall.
Arnold's ventures as an entrepreneur spanned numerous services and industries -- Arnold Industries produced Herschede grandfather clocks and bass boat trolling motors, and his Starkville Tours bus company hauled many residents as far as Alaska, Canada and New York. Howard Furniture, a part of Arnold Industries, would later be sold and become home to Flexsteel on Industrial Road, and Arnold also operated a car dealership and barbecue restaurant.
"John Robert Arnold will truly be missed by this community. He was involved in many business ventures and served as president of the chamber of commerce in 1974. He will be remembered for his philanthropic activity as well," said Greater Starkville Development Partnership Chief Executive Officer Scott Maynard. "He was a great man."
Arnold often blended work with singing, as FUMC Music Ministries Director Peter Infanger said he was known to turn, while driving his bus, to his passengers and insist his captive audience join in sing-alongs.
His need to sing remained with Arnold to the very end.
"When he was in the hospital, we were told his family could hear him mumbling ... and they thought he was singing," said Susie Overstreet, who met Arnold when her family moved to Oktibbeha County in 1933. "He was a wonderful, thoughtful person, and he was good to everybody. When he got involved in something, he was completely involved."
Outside of work, Arnold, along with Fenton Peters, founded the Arnold-Peters Happy Singers about 20 years ago. The group featured mixed-race singers -- about 10-12 members at any given time -- and played area civic functions and church events, all while promoting improved race relations.
"It was kind of a big deal when it got started. I think it made the community realize that it doesn't really matter what the color of your skin is, but it's what's in your heart. A lot of places can be segregated by choice most of the time, and showing (racial unity) was part of their impact," said Wallace Killcreas, who sang with the group for about 15 years. "John Robert Arnold was indomitable and a kind-hearted guy. He led a great life, and that's what should be celebrated."
Arnold's level of commitment to improving the lives of Oktibbeha County residents was also reflected in his decades of service as a FUMC seventh-grade Sunday school teacher. Pastor Giles Lindley jokingly said Arnold put so much service in that the church is "still trying to figure out how long he taught."
"I'm in my 60s, and he taught people older than I am, if that tells you anything," Lindley said.
One of Arnold's former students, former Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman, said Arnold approached children the same as he did adults -- in a humble, straight-forward manner that truly allowed his personality to shine.
"If you were to walk up and strike up a conversation with John Robert as a seventh-grader, he would never leave you with the impression that he was a bigshot in the community," Wiseman said. "But the reality was he was a bigshot in the community. He was one of the kindest, most unique people I've ever met. He was a genuine article, and his character and faith are an example to all of us. With the arc of his life in focus, in makes a very compelling case for how living for others first can bring a person to the pinnacle of success in all things.
"He was a true community servant -- a serial entrepreneur -- for almost a century," he added. "His business activities alone helped sustain the community, but he never gave up looking for ways to dedicate his time and talents to the service of others."
Arnold was also a key figure of the Boy Scouts through his support of the local troop and the Pushmataha Area Council.
The organization is planning to honor him soon, McBroom said.
"He was an incredible force for scouting and for our council, and he was an extremely generous man," McBroom said. "When we had fundraisers, he would hand write letters asking for contributions from his friends and called people on the phone directly. He helped the Boy Scouts out whenever and however he could."
Arrangements were not set by press time, but Lindley said the church is tentatively preparing to host a visitation Friday night.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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