CARTHAGE, Mo. — John O. “Pat” Phelps left a legacy of community service and good works when he died Saturday at his home after a long illness. He was 84.
Allison Phelps Holman, Pat Phelps’ daughter, said he built a legacy of big donations to Missouri Southern State University, the Carthage R-9 School District and other groups, but he will also be remembered for his little gifts and his sense of humor.
“He loved helping people so much that if you were renting a house from him and you needed help, he didn’t worry about the rent,” Holman said.
“The thing everyone is talking about is his quick wit. Even until the day before he died he was telling jokes. He would leave our caregivers and house cleaners in stitches. That’s kind of how we checked to see if he was still there every day, how early could we get him to tell a joke. So that part of him never went away. He never ended up in pain or anything, there was still a kindness in him to the end.”
Bill Putnam, of Carthage, a friend of Phelps, said their families had been in business together since the 1940s and 1950s.
“Our families were well acquainted socially and businesswise, and Pat kind of blazed trails for me,” Putnam said of Phelps who was five years his senior. “He went to a summer camp in Minnesota, Camp White Earth, and I followed him there. In fact, in one summer, we were both working at that camp. I was the kitchen boy and he was the handyman, and that’s where I first got to know him.”
Putnam said the two grew close in the late 1960s when they had returned from college and settled into their respective businesses.
Putnam said the two were in the Carthage Rotary Club together for 45 years and worked on community events with that group.
Phelps’ obituary said he graduated from Harvard University and University of Missouri School of Law and “married the love of his life and childhood sweetheart,” Carolyn Beimdiek Phelps, on Aug. 6, 1960.
He also served in the US Army and returned to Carthage in 1965 to begin a private law practice.
He served as Jasper County’s prosecuting attorney and worked as a trust attorney for the United Missouri Bank before retiring in 2003.
“I knew Pat when he was really at his prime,” Putnam said. “People who only knew Pat toward the end of his life didn’t really appreciate how good a person he was, how caring and considerate he was. I know when he was trust officer at the bank, he went above and beyond in reaching out to his clients to make sure they were taken care of. He was just a really special guy.”
Carthage school Superintendent Mark Baker said the decision by Phelps to sell the school district 80 acres of his grandfather’s farm on the southeast corner of River Street and Airport Drive changed the district’s plans for future growth.
“Without Pat and his family’s support regarding selling us the high school property, our entire school district facilities would look different,” Baker said. “The original plan for the high school was for it to be constructed on the property that is now the Carthage Intermediate Center. The 80 acres we purchased from Pat allowed us to expand our plans to include what we have today.”
Baker said Phelps and his family bought the naming rights to the proposed Carthage High School Performing Arts Center.
Even though the vote for the bond issue to build the center received a majority of votes in the August 2022 election, it didn’t quite meet the 57.1% threshold to approve a school bond issue.
While the decision to put the bond issue back up for a vote hasn’t been made yet, the gift still stands.
A generous heart
Phelps and his wife each served terms on the Missouri Southern State University Board of Regents in the 1980s and 1990s.
Pat and Carolyn Phelps were recognized by the Missouri Southern Lantern Society in 2015 with a Spirit of Philanthropy Award.
The society noted that the Phelps family has a long history of support for the university.
The two were also induced as a couple into the Hall of Carthage Heroes in 2020.
The plaque hanging at the Fair Acres Family Y includes a long list of groups the Phelpses served on and awards they received for their generosity, including their support of historic preservation efforts and involvement in Carthage Historic Preservation, the group that now owns and operates the massive Carthage marble home that Pat Phelps’ grandfather, Col. William Harlow Phelps, built in 1905.
Phelps was also deeply concerned about the preservation of Carthage’s history.
His obituary said he was involved in preserving The Phelps House, The Sweet House, the Jasper County Courthouse, St. Ann’s Church, the family’s buildings on the Carthage square, and the Cave Spring School in Sarcoxie.
Holman points to the little things that thrilled her father throughout his life.
“When it comes down to it, it’s not the big things, it’s the little things,” she said. “Like when he gave money to the Cave Springs School. When he saw in the newspaper that it was one of the top 10 endangered historic places in Missouri, he said that’s not happening in my county. When we went to the dedication of it, they gave him a basket of cards, with the picture before and after the renovation of the school, he was flabbergasted reading those letters. He had no idea it meant so much to so many people. That’s what he loved. He just loved that it made such a huge difference.”