OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) — A gathering of jubilant smiles from humans and canines offset the gray Tuesday morning sky at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to welcome Opelika's new park.

Located at 409/415 First Avenue, the Henry and Roslyn Stern Community Park was donated to the city from the Henry J. Stern Family Foundation.

Encompassing approximately 1.5 acres, the park features a picnic area, walking paths, a "Little Free Library" and a clock tower that lights up at night. Other attractions include a red caboose from the city's train depot and a fenced-in dog park.

Still, Tuesday's celebration signified another special occasion as the ceremony was held on the very day in which Henry J. Stern, the cherished Opelika resident, historian and Holocaust survivor, would have turned 87.

"I'm glad to see all of this on our dad's birthday," Stern's daughter, Ginger, told the Opelika-Auburn News. "It really means a lot."

Ginger's brother, J. Stern, concurred with a smile.

"One thing Dad always wanted was to leave a legacy of some kind in Opelika," he said. "And he and Mom would have been proud of us working together and accomplishing something for the city."

'A beautiful thing'

Mayor Gary Fuller expressed gratitude to the Sterns on behalf of the city.

"This park is such a labor of love, and I watched this. when J. and Ginger got started on it," Fuller said. "And, you know, little by little it took shape."

Referencing the memory of Henry and Roslyn Stern, as well as deeming Henry Stern as a valuable resource, the mayor also remarked, "And to hear him talk about the power of voting. See, Henry was a Holocaust survivor. On the last ship to leave Germany, (he) came to Opelika.. But Henry would talk about voting and the importance of voting. He loved America, and he certainly loved Opelika."

J. Stern highlighted how the event also served as a gift to Fuller, who celebrates his birthday on Wednesday. He also recognized the project's designer, Morgan Beadles, and Gamble Winter Construction, who developed the pavilion sidewalks, as well as those who helped with landscaping, relocating the caboose and the project in general.

"And so we just want everybody to enjoy it," J. Stern said.

Jasper Snipes, vice-chairman of the Opelika Park Board, thanked the Sterns as well.

"It's a beautiful thing," Snipes said. "I just got over here yesterday to see the finished product, and as a park board member and a citizen of Opelika, we're just happy to be a part of it."

Sam Bailey, director of Opelika Parks & Recreation, said the new park will be another popular dog park for the area.

"And then, of course, put the walking track and the pavilion with this is awesome," he added. "We think this will be great for the city."

Ward 3 City Councilman Dozier Smith T said, "I'm just very thankful for the Sterns and their history with our city, and all they've done for us through the years. And this is just — what a great addition to our city."

'Tribute to Opelika's roots'

The caboose at the park, too, represents a special recognition, one that honors two other Opelikans. The sign by it reads, "The caboose restoration, a Keep Opelika Beautiful project, is dedicated to Shirley Flora and Chuck Sanders whose vision and hard work provided the inspiration for its completion."

Tipi Miller, director of Keep Opelika Beautiful, Inc., was delighted to see the caboose, which was donated to KOB by Norfolk Southern about 20 years ago, at its new home where children and families can enjoy it.

"We have renovated the caboose — and of course it was down at the depot — but we felt like it wasn't getting a lot of love and a lot of attention," Miller said. "So when J. and Ginger approached us and asked if we would be interested in the caboose moving to the new park, we were thrilled. We are so glad that people will enjoy the caboose. The Sterns have done such an excellent job with this park that the caboose just fits in perfect, and it just compliments the rest of the park."

Strollers through the park included Julie and Rick Golsen, relatives of the Sterns who drove from Marietta, Ga., for the celebration.

"I think it's wonderful to have this in Opelika," Julie Golsen said. "And I think this is a wonderful tribute and an honor, that they were able to donate this to the city of Opelika for years to come."

Her husband, Rick, added, "Opelika's always been a part of the Stern family, and vice-versa, and it's great that Ginger and J., along with the help of others, were able to put this together for Opelika."

Elphie Mayfield, a 9-year-old Border Collie mix, "will have a great place to make friends at the park," said Elphie's owner, Megan Mayfield.

"We love it," Mayfield said. "It provides a pavilion space for nonprofits and community involvement, while paying tribute to Opelika's roots by the caboose."


Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, http://www.oanow.com/