Sunnyslope Sunset

Death claims community organizer

Paul Bellanger, who died October 30 at age 68 after a long illness, probably wouldn't have liked his memorial service. He hated people fussing over him. But the 200 or so friends -- including many top Phoenix city officials -- who came to Hansen's Mortuary in Sunnyslope to remember him two weeks ago, wouldn't have had it any other way.

Bellanger was one of the most persistent community organizers in the city -- a man who, alongside his more gregarious wife, Betty, formed the New North Town Fight Back in the early 1990s and helped to turn around a neighborhood on the slide.

They did not shout or stamp their feet. They leaned on their neighbors, the government and other institutions to do right by the community, bringing a quiet civility to an area of civic life that's more often known for loud complaints and accusations.

Bellanger was devoted to kids. And he and Betty developed the area's first after-school program, at Desert View elementary school.

"They never wanted any special credit for their work," says Jan Mowery, an official with the Phoenix's Neighborhood Services Department who worked with them for years. "They always tried to push the credit back on you or someone else."

They took on the area's slums and blight. They sponsored food and holiday drives for kids whose families needed a boost. And they formed the heart of a grapevine that could mobilize a hundred or more community residents to do anything from paint out graffiti to attend meetings about projects planned for the area.

"In a lot of ways, they were really family," says Phoenix City Councilman Phil Gordon. 'No matter where you and they stood on different issues, they treated you that way -- always."

That sense of family extended beyond their front door.

"Every kid in this neighborhood came to Paul to fix his bicycle," says Betty. "So while they were here, I gave them a cookie, an apple and a glass of milk."

All the while, Paul told stories. The tales were always good guy/bad guy, woven with history, mythology and moral lessons about kindness, sharing and doing the right thing.

"Pretty soon, we had four and five kids at a time coming over," says Betty, "so it seemed natural to expand what we were doing into a real program at the nearby school."

Up until the past year, when poor health slowed him, Paul Bellanger showed up regularly at the after-school program to tell his made-up stories to the growing crowd of kids.

As for the crowd at the memorial service, Betty quipped that Paul would have taken one look at Mayor Skip Rimsza, the several city councilpersons, police commanders and numerous other city officials in attendance and asked a question, not told a story.

The question: "Who the hell's downtown running the city?"

Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: elebow@newtimes.com

 
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