From right: Paragould Director of Parks and Recreation Pat Austin visits with lifelong friend Janie Hudson about Austin's selection as 2018 Paragould Christmas Parade Grand Marshal, as Paragould Mayor Mike Gaskill praises Austin to the assembled employees of the city on Monday afternoon.
BY GARY EXELBY firstname.lastname@example.org
Pat Austin has done a lot for Paragould, and the Main Street Paragould board of directors is recognizing her by naming her Grand Marshal of tonight's 2018 Christmas Parade.
"I'm lost for words," Austin said upon hearing of her selection Monday afternoon at the Paragould Community Center. "I am definitely not deserving - usually it goes to people who have done stuff, and I am just doing my job."
Austin has been the city's director of parks and recreation since 1974, a total of 44 years.
"I worked for her way back in 1976," said Main Street Paragould Executive Director Gina Jarrett.
Jarrett added that Main Street Paragould had asked for nominations for Grand Marshal, in response to a question from Austin as to how the award came about. "And the response was overwhelming," she said.
Paragould Mayor Mike Gaskill announced the award during a meeting of all city employees on Monday afternoon at the Paragould Community Center. "I wanted to do it now because everyone was going to be here," he said.
In the view of those who have known Austin for a long time, the honor is more than well-deserved.
"I have known her for many, many moons," said Janie Hudson, who graduated with her in 1971 from Paragould High School. "We were in school together since first grade."
Hudson, owner of The Kwik Stitch, characterized Austin as a great, kind-hearted person. "She would do anything for anybody," she said.
Hudson added that Austin is extremely well-organized and that "if you want a friend, she's there for you."
She also hailed Austin's efforts on behalf of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
"Pat was constantly working on the [Community Center] playground," Hudson said, "and she has worked tirelessly to get all the [Department's] buildings redone."
She also noted Austin's skill as a golfer, and her ongoing involvement in athletics, like volleyball and softball.
"Her family has always been sports-minded," Hudson added. "Her dad was a softball coach, and her brother Billy Don is a coach in northwest Arkansas. She has been in athletics her whole life."
John McCollum has known Austin since the two were in eighth grade together.
"She won the state amateur golf championship," he added in affirming her athletic skill. "And she has told me that when she retires - whenever that might be! - she wants to be a mentor for the high school golf teams."
Carol Elmore, who has known Austin since elementary school, echoed Hudson's comments about Austin.
"She has a good heart," she said. "She would do anything to help others - she is dependable."
Rena Jackson, who has known Austin since seventh grade, saluted Austin's dedication to her job and community.
"There is no one who is prouder of Paragould than Pat is," she said. "She is always positive, she works hard, and she doesn't take any of the credit [for her accomplishments]."
All her friends remarked on Austin's pride in the Paragould Community Center.
"She shows the center off to everybody," said Jackson.
"People come here," added Elmore, "and they can't get over the place."
Parks and Recreation Department events coordinator Kim Baldridge, who has worked for Austin for the last 20 years, added that her boss had been instrumental in getting the Community Center built in the first place.
"She made the [other] park improvements happen," Baldridge said, "and she was the driving force behind getting the children's playground for the Community Center."
"This is her calling," concluded Jackson. "She could have done anything she wanted [with her life] and this is what she chose. She's just a wonderful person - bright, intelligent and good-hearted."
Tonight's Paragould Christmas Parade begins at 7 p.m. in downtown Paragould.