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Johnny Vardeman: Youngsters got their game on in Roper Park
Johnny Vardeman

Before youth sports became so organized, young people in the Roper Park neighborhood around Virginia Circle off Thompson Bridge Road in Gainesville “got up” baseball and football games at the park. No coaches and few, if any, spectators or parents.

The Roper Park field’s “fence” was Thompson Bridge Road, and if you hit the ball over the road, it was a home run, according to Fletcher Carter, one of the players way back when. But, said Van Peeples, another young participant, nobody could do that.

The park today has a real ball diamond, playground, picnic pavilion and tennis courts. 

In Carter’s young mind, “Roper Park seemed to just sort of appear.” He remembers such “teammates” as Peeples, Donnie Smith, Phillip Sumlin, Pete Whiten, Norman Bramlett, Ronnie Delk, Allen Doveton, Joe Wiley, Jimmy Henson and Sammy Harmons, among many others who would gather to play at the park or a nearby pasture, which he called “the center of our universe.”

Roper Park was the main attraction, but Vern Sayre’s Cake Box Bakery nearby ran a close second. Of an early morning, the youngsters were lured by the sweet smell of doughnuts cooking at the bakery. 

“After following the creek that flowed through the pasture and behind the bakery,” Carter recalled, “we would enter through the back door to be surrounded by metal racks filled with large trays of sheer pleasure.” 

Getting their fill, they then would climb into the back of the Sealtest Milk truck and polish off the remaining doughnuts with pints of ice cold chocolate milk.

Roper Park came about Feb. 3, 1955, when W.A. Roper deeded the land to the City of Gainesville strictly for park and recreation purposes. 

Roper, known as “Cousin Arthur,” was somewhat of a character around Gainesville, a successful Realtor and insurance agent. His Roper Hill off Cleveland Road, now covered with apartments, was once a picnic area with a mountain view.

When he died at age 86 in July 1963, The Times called him a “Realtor, humanitarian and humorist who had inspired newspaper readers for years with his column, ‘Cousin Arthur’.”

His car struck a truck on Thompson Bridge Road the day he died, but doctors said a heart attack killed him.

Roper had told editors at The Times that of all the business and civic activities of his life, writing the newspaper column was the most rewarding and fun thing he did.

His columns, often including poems, were reprinted in newspapers, magazines and church publications all over the country. He wrote of his childhood days plowing behind a mule and working in a garden. 

The newspaper wrote that Roper’s religion, wit and love of country were reflected in his writings. He didn’t mind teasing his many friends through his column, but never in an unkind way.

Roper wrote the “Cousin Arthur” column for The Times without pay. He once appealed to readers to lobby The Times for “at least $1 a week.” That never happened, but he continued to write his column.

Roper often was called on to speak to church groups, and one of his favorite pastimes was attending campmeetings and church dinners-on-the-ground. 

In Gainesville, he partnered with W.A. Carlisle and W.H. Slack in the real estate business and acquired large holdings of property. 

For a while, Roper dealt in real estate in Florida, and he was the one who proposed to Gen. Sandy Beaver of Riverside Military Academy that it build a campus in Hollywood, Fla. For many years, the school alternated between the Florida campus and the one in Gainesville.

His generosity to his church, First Baptist on Green Street, and to the community was well known. The gift of land for Roper Park was an example, and six decades later, it continues to be enjoyed by people of all ages.

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A landmark of sorts came tumbling down last week. The old brick home of Ode Parks at the corner of Enota and Park Hill Drive in Gainesville fell to the wrecking ball. Parks was Gainesville’s assistant fire chief and a familiar sight in the yard or on the porch of his longtime home, and the horses he kept in the pasture along Enota were a bucolic respite from the congested city intersection. The property will become a site for offices.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. E-mail