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Russellville parks director leaves trail of accomplishments

By Tammy Keith

This article was published December 31, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.

Mack Hollis, director of Russellville Recreation and Parks, stands on a bridge near City Park. He will retire Jan. 26 after 35 years as director and 38 years in the department. During his tenure, Hollis has seen the number of parks grow from eight to 23 and the construction of the Russellville Aquatic Center.

If Mack Hollis isn’t a people person, nobody is.

Hollis, who will retire in January after 38 years — 35 years as director — from the Russellville Recreation and Parks Department, came to the city intending to spend just one semester at Arkansas Tech University.

He came with friends from his hometown of Pine Bluff, planning to transfer to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where everyone else in his family had attended college.

“I got to Russellville, and I fell in love with Russellville, Arkansas. I fell in love with the people; they were all so nice,” he said.

Hollis took a chunk of time out of college to work and graduated in 1979 from Arkansas Tech with a degree in recreation administration.

While he was earning money for college, he worked construction, including helping to build Pine Bluff }Regional Park, and was a part-time bartender at the Russellville Country Club.

“The interesting thing about bartending was I made a lot of contacts. When you bartend, they always talk to you,” he said.

Hollis, whose mother was a teacher and his father a certified public accountant, didn’t have a major in mind. He chose his degree based on people, too.

A friend invited him to an Arkansas Tech Parks and Recreation Club meeting, and they had a great time together socially.

“They were all great people,” Hollis said. He decided he’d take a few classes in the subject.

“They were great instructors — really nice and personable. I said, ‘I’m just going to major in this and see where it leads,’” he said.

It led to a long, rewarding career with the city of Russellville.

“Jan. 2 will be 38 years ago I walked in the door there,” he said. Hollis’ office is in the Hughes Community Center. He’ll walk out the door Jan. 26 with a long list of accomplishments.

He was hired in 1980 as a recreational aid through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (now the Workforce Investment Act).

On Jan. 1, 1981, he was hired by the city as recreation supervisor, and on Jan. 1, 1982, he was promoted to assistant director to director Roger Lisenby. In July 1982, Lisenby left to go to Fort Worth, Texas, and Hollis was promoted to director.

Hollis’ first challenge was a big one. The department was almost totally funded with federal turnback funds, and in 1983, when he was preparing his first budget, federal funding was being cut drastically.

Then-Russellville Mayor Bill Hashbarger called Hollis into his office.

“He said, ‘I need you to cut your budget 50 percent, but I don’t want it to look like it,’” Hollis recalled.

Hollis went to his dad, Cal Hollis, whom he calls “the smartest man I’ve ever known.”

Hollis said he told his father, “They want me to cut the budget 50 percent. I don’t know if I can do that.’”

His dad suggested pulling out the programs and creating another account.

“We took all our programs — basketball, baseball, volleyball, softball — we took all those and developed a Special Programs Account for the city. All the fees, all the advertising — we had to raise all our own money to pay for those programs. The city stopped paying for those programs, and that cut my budget.

“It wasn’t coming out of city revenues. … It worked out because the people were so good about donating stuff to us,” Hollis said. “When I pulled the city out of it, people came out of the woodwork — we want to donate dirt to you.’ We’d go to buy stuff, and people would just donate it to us. I had a guy donate an asphalt trail around the baseball field.”

A building needed in 1985 so Russellville could have a state baseball tournament was constructed primarily with donated labor and materials, thanks to the late James Crafton, who was “big in baseball” at that time. The building at Hickey Park is now used for umpires.

Hollis has seen an increase from eight parks in the city to 23 during his tenure.

“You know, it basically was what was needed and what people wanted,” Hollis said. Those projects included the growth of the softball program, which resulted in building a four-field complex, Pleasant View Park. Hickey Park was four baseball fields when he got there, and because of the growth in baseball, three fields were added.

The soccer complex was borne of an interest from parents.

“When I started in ’80, we had the director at that time who brought a group down from Fayetteville to teach us about soccer,” Hollis said. The director, Hollis and others “got in the gym and kicked the ball around.We had a very strong group of parents who wanted to put a soccer program on. They took over soccer and ran it as a parent group, and they did a great job.”

Soccer was “scattered everywhere” in Russellville before the city purchased property and built a 15-field soccer complex.

“We just lit three fields with really good top-of-the-line LED lighting. It’s used really heavily by youth soccer that has grown so wonderfully,” he said.

Hollis said his favorite projects are creating walking trails, and the city has about 12 miles of them.

“I love building walking trails, multiuse trails for walking, running, biking. We’ve built several of those and have a trail plan we’re working on,” he said.

Hollis was in his office Dec. 26 working on plans to renovate Shiloh Park, and the department has a grant through the Arkansas

Department of Parks and Tourism to help. Advertising and Promotion funds will be used to renovate the pavilion. Six pickleball courts will be created from scratch, and plans are to renovate the playground there.

“That’s one thing I kind of wish I was going to stick around for, but it would be something else if it wasn’t that,” he said.

Hollis said he thinks he’s easy to get along with.

“I don’t let a whole lot bother me. You’ve got to do that; you’ve got to pick your battles,” Hollis said. “That’s one thing you really have to do as a park director — know when to work with somebody else. You can try and sway people, but eventually, you’re going to have to give in a little bit.

“I had a very diverse commission, and most of them were really good about going out and visiting with the public and doing what was right. If 80 wanted something done, and two people who were political and had influence wanted something, my commission was pretty good about going with what the 80 people wanted. Very rarely did I ever go against them.”

Hollis’ job was not without controversy. He’s proud of the Russellville Aquatic Center, an amenity the public was clamoring for and supported in 2013 by passing a 1-cent sales tax.

The location was controversial, as well as the budget for the facility.

It was built on a 22-acre site at 1300 N. Phoenix Ave., near Arkansas Tech. Hollis and others wanted the aquatic center to be built on Vick Field, across the street from the Hughes Center. He thought it would be easier to operate there, which was more of a residential area.

“Where they put it is a better place,” he said. “It’s a better place for tourism, people to see it. It’s near hotels, near Arkansas Tech.”

The budget had to be trimmed from $9.1 million, and the aquatic center ended up costing $6.6 million.

“It is doing well; it’s doing better than projected on revenues. I’ve got nothing but compliments about it from the public,” he said.

That means a lot to Hollis.

He said helping to create a better quality of life for people of Russellville is something that’s kept him in his job.

“That’s one of the things that’s kept me here so long. I worked with the public to build the fourplex, the softball complex. Having people use it and seeing them have fun in it, and then coming up and having them thank you for helping build it and be a part of it — that’s great. It’s the same with kids on playgrounds and trails.”

At home, he also keeps a little note written in crayon by a child.

“It says, ‘Dear Mr. Mack — thank you so much for building the Splash Pad. I love it. I come here all the time and have lots of fun.’

“That’s what it’s about,” Hollis said. “That’s one of the things that keeps you here.”

He has lots of those stories.

“I had a lady hug my neck one day when I walked into the aquatic center. She asked who I was, and she said, ‘I’ve got to hug your neck; you saved my life.’ I said, ‘What?’”

The woman told him that before the Russellville Aquatic Center was built, she couldn’t get out of her car by herself. She had to be placed in a wheelchair and wheeled in for therapy in the pool.

“She said, ‘I can get out of my car and walk in here. I can get into the therapy pool and do my aerobics now.’ I said, all right, this is why I’m here. This is why I’m doing this. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

Hollis said he doesn’t like to use the word “I.”

“I think we have accomplished quite a bit,” he said. “All I’ve done is help coordinate ideas. I have a great staff; they’ve all helped and worked hard. We’ve all done it. It hasn’t been me, and I truly believe that. I’m not just saying it to say it.”

Mayor Randy Horton praised Hollis’ work.

“He’s meant everything to our parks and rec. It’s unrecognizable now, compared to when he started,” Horton said. “He has managed the department well, tried to do whatever people wanted. He knows how to work with people and different entities, like the [U.S.

Army] Corps of Engineers. Anyone who has to put together a project dealt with him. He has meant everything.”

Hollis will be 65 in August, and his daughter, who lives in Fayetteville, is pregnant with his first grandchild. His wife, Anne, died almost three years ago.

“I’m ready to play a little bit more golf,” Hollis said. “I’m ready to start fishing a little bit more, ready to start hunting a little bit more. I used to go floating quite a bit before I got so busy.

“I want to relax. I’ve been working 45 years, 38 of them here.”

Hollis said he doesn’t plan to drop out of sight. He’s involved in the Arkansas Recreation and Parks Association, and he wants to volunteer in Russellville.

“I just won’t be at the beck and call, making the decisions,” he said.

“Everybody thinks I’m going to move to Fayetteville, but my house is paid for, and I love my house. We built it when my daughter was 3; we raised our kids here. It doesn’t make sense [to move].”

He’d also have to leave all those nice people of Russellville, and he’s not ready to

do that.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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