By Jesse Wood
Feb. 12, 2015. After being hired to design a theme park about the “Wizard of Oz” on top of Beech Mountain in the ‘60s, Jack Pentes would drive up the mountain in his Volkswagen bus and pull into the woods. He”d then open the back of the van, where there was a table, and start drawing faces on gnarly beech trees.
“He was a pretty humble character,” said Fred Pfohl, a longtime friend and owner of Fred’s Mercantile General atop Beech Mountain.
Pentes, who has been described as a creative genius, passed away on Saturday, Feb. 7, at the age of 83. His obituary also called Pentes a “talented, driven, generous man,” one who “rode his motorcycle sidecar over the rainbow” after his passing.
“He was a special, special human being and my life is better from having been a friend of his, and like I said, I’d like to think I’ve been almost successful and I contributed that to the ‘Pentes way’ of doing things,” Pfohl said.
The ‘Pentes way’ became part of the vernacular among employees at the Land of Oz theme park, which Pentes designed and was very successful in its heyday in the ‘70s.
Before Pfohl opened Fred’s Mercantile General, he worked his way up from supervisor of maintenance to a manager at the Land of Oz, where his friendship with Pentes began. Each year before the Land of Oz opened, all of the new employees, mostly students from Appalachian State University, would arrive for an orientation, where Pentes always gave what Pfohl called a “pep talk.”
“We always talked about doing things the Pentes way, meaning whatever we did, whether it was picking up trash, painting a building or redoing something, we had to do it the right way, Jack would have wanted to do it,” Pfohl said. “He’s a genius, far reaching to everybody that worked there, the brains behind everything on top of that mountain as far as the Land of Oz.”
Born in Columbus, Ga., Pentes moved to Charlotte with his parents as a child. He began drawing at an early age, including a 20-foot mural at the age of 7. After graduation from Charlotte Central High School in 1949, he worked as an artist and sign maker before joining the Army and serving in the Korean War, according to a profile of his life in the Charlotte Observer.
Upon returning to the states, he opened a design firm and work came rolling in, even though, as the paper reported, there was no such similar enterprises around back in those days.
In 1957, Pentes founded Carolina Clowns, a nonprofit group of volunteer clowns who participate in festivals and visit churches, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and community functions to bring joy to others.
In 1982, Pentes also invented soft-play equipment, which was created to avoid the dangers of traditional outdoor playground equipment such as jungle gyms and seesaws. His concept was installed in what is now Chuck E. Cheese and then on to other fast-food restaurants once those businesses realized that having these play areas increased business, according to an essay on soft-play equipment by White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group.
And all of this is just touching on a portion of what Pentes created – on and off the mountain.
Pfohl said that Pentes helped design his general store on the mountain. At the time, everybody thought Pfohl was crazy to build a general store on top of Beech Mountain because many believed there wouldn’t be enough business to support the operation.
Pentes also created signs for Pfohl’s general store. One read: “Best Selection East of Heaton.” Another said: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it. If you don”t see it, ask for it … and caskets on special order.”
“I still have that sign, and I’ll always be able remember Jack by it. I’ve been really fortunate to be a good friend,” Pfohl said. “He shined bright with everything he did and Charlotte has all kinds of things that he participated in and did, and to this day, he’s remembered and for a long-time coming.”
Jack is survived by his wife, Ruth Emerson Jones Pentes of Charlotte, daughter Danna Pentes and her partner Charlene Owen of Decatur, Ga., son Dorne Michael Pentes and his spouse Wendy Fishman and grandchildren Elias Michael and Eden Blue Pentes, all of Charlotte, and his dog, Nellie.
A celebration of Jack”s life and work will be held this Friday, Feb. 13, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, 234 North Sharon Amity Road, at 2 pm. Reception to follow. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Carolina Clowns, PO Box 35282, Charlotte, NC, 28235-5282.