David Paradise named 2014 Citizen of the Year

Published 4:46 pm Sunday, March 2, 2014

NATCHEZ — In Natchez, David Paradise is the go-to guy.

Whether you’re hosting an arts festival, trying to save the stray animal population or even making a $30 million movie, the consensus is that Paradise is man to call if you need help.

When “The Help” director Tate Taylor wanted to make the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” in Natchez, he asked for Paradise’s advice.

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“(I) simply asked, ‘David, I’m thinking about filming my next movie in Natchez.  What’s your knee-jerk reaction?  Could I succeed here?’” Taylor said.  “David, without pause, said, ‘Absolutely and I’m going to help you.’

David Paradise

David Paradise

“His endorsement and unspoken guarantee caused me to pull the trigger on Natchez.”

Taylor said Paradise systematically began setting up meetings with city officials and others, attended the meetings to get the ball rolling and even housed crew members while they were in town looking at Natchez as a possible filming location.

Paradise was given the title “stratospheric executive producer” for his work in helping make the movie happen in Natchez, Taylor said.

“It’s a fun wink and nod to what he did,” Taylor said. “But when we hit bumps in the road trying to get the movie set up, I could always call David to step in.

“It wouldn’t have happened (without Paradise).”

Securing Natchez as the primary filming location for “Get On Up” is just a recent example of Paradise’s commitment to the success of Natchez, however.

Paradise has for many years used his business expertise to guide the development of community projects and quietly donated time and money to several local nonprofit organizations and events.

Paradise’s unending generosity to the community and his dedication and determination to finding solutions and making things happen for the betterment of Natchez, all of which have been done while he shines the spotlight on his hometown and away from himself, make Paradise The Natchez Democrat’s 2014 Citizen of the Year.

Humble beginnings 

Paradise is a Natchez native and one of five children his mother, Irene, a schoolteacher, raised largely on her own after Paradise’s father, Everett Paradise, died when Paradise was 3.

“She lost her husband at 26 and had five children under 5 … and she never once felt sorry for herself,” said Paradise’s daughter, Laurie Morgan. “She was the most selfless person I have ever known.”

Morgan said she believes her father cares so much about Natchez because his mother cared so much for the city and because people in Natchez have been good to his family.

Paradise’s sister, Elaine, was born with spina bifida and spent her life in a wheelchair, Morgan said.

“The neighborhood people were very helpful to Elaine, and I think Dad saw that … and he wants to give back as a way to pay it forward because so many people were good to Elaine,” Morgan said.

Paradise graduated in 1968 from Natchez High School, where he played the French horn in the band.

Morgan said her father plays several instruments by ear, mainly piano now, and even had a band named The Rude Awakening in high school.

Morgan said Paradise’s mother could not afford college, but Paradise was able to attend Louisiana Tech University on a band scholarship.

“The story goes that he had to pick just one instrument, and he couldn’t, so he went into business,” Morgan said, laughing.

Paradise graduated with a degree in business and came back to Natchez to work for relatives at Natchez Steam Laundry.

Paradise next became a landman for an oil company and then started a local real estate company, Paradise Better Homes and Gardens.

Paradise was in the real estate business when he opened his first Taco Bell in 1988 in Brookhaven.

Since then, that one Taco Bell has become 83 restaurants, which include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Applebee’s, IHOP and Smashburger franchises, including the Taco Bell in Natchez.

Those locations, spread across Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio, are managed by Paradise Companies based in Natchez.

Paradise also served as president of FRANMAC, the Taco Bell Franchise Management Advisory Council.

Those close to Paradise say his business prowess, negotiating skills and sound judgment have been instrumental in getting projects funded and off the ground

Nonprofit work

Natchez-Adams County Humane Society Vice President Sue Stedman said Paradise, a NACHS board member, is one of the cornerstones of the humane society.

Paradise has been a “huge factor” in the humane society’s ability to move forward with building a new $1 million shelter, Stedman said.

“He’s willing to lend his assistance, not only with respect to the new shelter, but he is very much engaged in the day-to-day operations and seeing that our programs in place are effective and funded,” Stedman said.

Stedman has known Paradise for more than 30 years and says his guidance and opinion is sought by many in the community.

“He is just kind of the go-to guy,” she said. “Everyone respects his opinion and his ability to make a decision and make a sound decision and then follow through. He’s a visionary. Somebody like that is a huge asset to your community.”

Paradise served as the president of the Historic Natchez Foundation in 1998 and is a trustee for the foundation’s endowment.

HNF Executive Director Mimi Miller said Paradise has been invaluable in the preservation of Natchez’s history through the foundation.

“He has a very good head for business and a commitment to preserving what is special about Natchez,” Miller said. “David is a Natchez native, and he realizes that Natchez is a special place … and he wants to be involved in preserving those things that make it special.”

Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration founder and co-chairwoman Carolyn Vance Smith said Paradise helps in “every kind of way” to make the celebration possible each year.

“From the smallest details that are so important all the way to the big contributions in time and energy and money,” Smith said. “We’re delighted to have him on our advisory board, and the ripple effect when he’s in action is truly effective.

“He’s just remarkable, his kindness and goodness, and he is just brilliant, a brilliant man.”

Natchez Festival of Music president Mary Lessley said without Paradise, the festival would not be able to host its children’s outreach program.

Every year the festival sends guest artists with sets and costumes to Natchez and Concordia Parish schools, as well as schools as far away as Winnsboro, St. Francisville, Brookhaven, Meadville and McComb. The artists put on a performance with messages geared toward children.

“We reach over 10,000 children in public and private schools,” Lessley said. “We couldn’t continue to do it without David.”

“A true ambassador”

Taylor said Paradise is a “true ambassador for the city of Natchez.”

“He does it with grace and patience,” Taylor said. “(He is) ultimately dependable and shoots straight.

“Everybody should be so lucky to have someone like David living in their community.”

Dr. Randy Tillman, who has known Paradise for more than 50 years, says Paradise shies away from letting people know about all the contributions he has made to the community.

“You won’t find (David) in any Democrat article saying, ‘Oh thanks to me, this happened and that happened,’” Tillman said. “He works for good without claiming credit. That’s his nature.”

During the flood of May 2011, when the Mississippi River was threatening to overtake the riverfront, Tillman said Paradise quietly helped mobilize a construction crew to help build barricades against the water.

“He’s never claimed credit for any of that,” Tillman said. “It makes you think, what else has he done that you never hear about because he is so humble?”

Morgan said when her father turned 60 three years ago, she gave him an owl statuary as a symbol of his wisdom.

“That’s how I view him,” she said. “Every day he gives me just a little more wisdom on how to be a good person, not just career-wise, but just an all-around good citizen.”

Paradise is married to Betty Paradise. Morgan, who is married to Tal Morgan, is his only daughter, and he also has a stepson, Sonny Blackwell.

He is the brother of Robert Paradise, Barbara Kirby, Marilyn Schilling and the late Elaine Paradise.