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Vets Park offers chance to set names in stone

December 7, 2018

STAMFORD - At certain times in city history, Veterans Park has been about veterans.

In the 1940s, when nearly every family was tied to the battlefields of World War II, the park at Atlantic and Bank streets had a triangular service wall made of wood.

“Every time someone from Stamford went into the service, their name was hand-painted on a wooden slat and put on the wall,” said Tony Pavia, author of “An American Town Goes to War,” a book about city residents who served in that war. “If someone was killed, a gold star was put beside their name.”

The park became a venerated place. When the wall was dedicated in 1943, halfway through the war, there were 5,000 names on it, Pavia said.

By the end of the war, the number had doubled, and 233 were marked with stars.

But the monument could not withstand the elements, or urban renewal, and in the 1960s it was torn down. After a time, the park languished.

Then, in 1977, the city invested $500,000 in the park to make it about veterans again. Four granite monoliths went up, each engraved with the names of all known Stamford residents who died in the nation’s wars.

Eventually a bronze depicting a World War I “doughboy” was added, along with a sculpture of a seated Abraham Lincoln, who said those who “gave their lives that (the) nation might live” should always be honored. A statue of Homer Lee Wise, Stamford’s Medal of Honor winner from World War II, was installed.

But when Patricia Parry visited in the winter of 2011, shortly after her son, Navy SEAL Brian Bill, was killed in Afghanistan, the park was unkempt.

“It was a depressing place,” Parry said.

“It was in a sad state,” said Patrick Sasser, her son’s lifelong friend.

“It was in total disrepair,” said Sandy Goldstein, president of the Downtown Special Services District. “It exhibited, truthfully, a feeling of disrespect.”

Parry and Sasser wanted a fitting place to honor the memory of Bill and all veterans of the global war on terror. They began to work with the DSSD and Rick Redniss, head of a Stamford land-use consulting firm, Redniss & Mead, and a longtime community advocate.

Now, six years later, the park is in the middle of a renovation that will create a plaza surrounded by an amphitheater, with pathways lined in trees, lampposts and benches that lead to the monoliths, which have been repositioned on a hill.

When it opens next November, the park will be a place for quiet reflection and public events, according to the Veterans Park Partnership, led by Redniss.

And, as happened during World War II, Stamford residents will have a chance to make it their own.

The partnership is selling the red pavers that will form the plaza, which will be set with five stars representing the branches of the military, to raise money to maintain the park and organize events there. Residents may have the pavers engraved with the name of a veteran or a tribute to a loved one.

The partnership already has raised about $6 million for the renovation from city and state grants and corporate contributions. Now the group is raising revenue from the sale of pavers as well as donor plaques on flagpoles, benches, trees and lampposts.

“In the past the park lacked maintenance and supervision. It was unfortunate, but that is why we’ve taken our time to build a coalition and secure adequate funding to do things toward the long term,” Redniss said.

This week the Internal Revenue Service recognized the partnership as a 501c3 nonprofit, he said.

According to the group’s website, donors to date have purchased five flagpoles that will fly the banners of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, at $15,000 apiece. An elm tree will be planted beside each flagpole. So far someone has purchased a tree for the Marines, also $15,000.

Donors have purchased three of the benches, at $2,500 apiece, and plaques for nearly three dozen lampposts are available at $1,000 each.

People are most interested in the pavers, said Michael Molgano, manager of sales for the group. At this point, there is room for about 250 8-inch-square concrete pavers at $200 apiece, and about 300 12-inch-square pavers at $500.

Pavers made of granite - 12 inches by 18 inches, and the larger 18 inches by 30 inches - are $1,500 and $2,500. They can be ordered at www.vprstamford.org.

“Anyone who would like their paver to be installed before the park is dedicated on Veterans Day next year has to get their order in by Dec. 21,” Molgano said. “You can still order after that, but they won’t be engraved until after the dedication.”

The DSSD is getting calls from people seeking to honor their veteran fathers, Goldstein said.

“I’m getting goosebumps from all the people saying, ‘I want a paver for my father,’” she said. “It’s such a beautiful thing.”

But a paver can commemorate anything important to you, Goldstein said. “I got one that says how much I love Stamford,” she said.

Sasser said he will order one for his father, Duffy Sasser II, who served in Vietnam.

“So many people in Stamford don’t even know we have a Veterans Park, because it’s been tucked away and neglected,” Sasser said. “It’s amazing how far it’s come.”

Parry said such places are meaningful to Gold Star parents.

“There’s a saying that a man dies twice — once when he stops breathing, and again when his name is spoken for the last time,” Parry said. “Everyone who gave of themselves, gave to their country, should be remembered.”

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.

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