Riverside’s American Legion Post 488 got some wonderful news last week. The United States World War I Centennial Commission, created by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2013, named the village’s Gold Star Memorial in Guthrie Park as one of the nation’s 100 official World War I Centennial memorials.
For years, the local American Legion post has tried to build momentum for a plan to refurbish the nearly century-old memorial, which consists of bronze plaques affixed to boulders and set around a flagpole that flies the Stars and Stripes.
Recognition by the federal commission also came with a grant of up to $2,000, which will go toward improvements to the memorial. With the $5,000 the American Legion Post 488 has already donated to the village of Riverside for the project, it would seem the rehabilitation of the Gold Star Memorial is moving full speed ahead.
Yet, there’s trouble below deck.
Earlier this year, the village turned over design of a refurbished memorial to Living Habitats, a landscape architecture firm it also used for its Swan Pond Park rehab plan. That firm has now come up with three options for the memorial, costing anywhere between $32,000 and $55,000.
This summer, Landscape Advisory Commission members voted to recommend the middle option, estimated to cost about $34,000, which would relocate the memorial from its home in Guthrie Park to a spot in front of the Riverside Township Hall.
“I was shocked,” said Riverside resident Tom Sisulak, who has been pushing for the rehabilitation of the memorial for the better part of a decade.
The Landscape Advisory Commission’s recommendation will next be considered by the Riverside Preservation Commission, at its next meeting on Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. at the town hall, 27 Riverside Road.
Representatives from the American Legion will also be there, said Sisulak, to argue against moving the memorial from a place he called “Riverside’s Arlington Cemetery.”
“That sacred site should be there and never be moved,” Sisulak said.
Cathy Maloney, chairwoman of the Landscape Advisory Commission, said in an email the commission felt the preferred option would increase the memorial’s visibility and integrate it more into the civic fabric, since the town hall serves as a polling place, the location of municipal and township meetings and other activities. The site is already accessible to those with disabilities (the present site is not), is more accessible to sources of electricity and water.
In addition, according to Maloney, moving the memorial will prevent people using the memorial space inappropriately during other village events and will bring Guthrie Park more in line with the principles of Frederick Law Olmsted, who wanted parks free from structures that detract from sweeping, open views of the landscape.
The other options considered by the Landscape Advisory Commission included leaving the memorial and flagpole in their present locations and raising the memorial above ground and reorganizing the boulders. That plan also imagines a low shrub background to the memorial and the construction of a sidewalk leading to it.
A second Guthrie Park option calls for building a sidewalk that would arc through the park from north to south, roughly connecting the train station and the township hall. Memorial boulders would be placed at various points along the walkway, each with its own foundation and space. Ornamental or shade trees would be planted along the pathway and, benches would sit opposite each memorial boulder.
The Riverside Village Board will have to sign off on the final plan for any refurbished or relocated memorial, because of the cost involved.
Though he’s not a veteran, Sisulak has played a large role in raising the profile of the local American Legion post, chiefly through the village’s annual Memorial Day program, whose organization he took over in 2008.
The previous year, Sisulak had taken his 99-year-old father, a World War II veteran and member of Post 488, to the Memorial Day ceremony in Guthrie Park. About 15 people showed up, he said.
Sisulak also noticed that the large boulder bearing the plaque containing names of Riverside servicemen killed during World War II had sunk so much that many names were literally underground. He started excavating the area in front of the boulder that year, chipping away bit by bit for the past 11 years.
In 2008, when the post commander, the late Scuffy Gross, told Sisulak that the Memorial Day ceremony was being discontinued, Sisulak took over the event. Gross was so impressed with the resurgence of the program and of interest in the American Legion post that he paid for Sisulak to join the Sons of the American Legion.
Under Sisulak’s direction, the Riverside Memorial Day event now draws hundreds, and has grown so much that for the past two years it has been held in the parish center at St. Mary Church.
The present commander of Riverside American Legion Post 488 is Joseph Topinka, son of the late Judy Baar Topinka. Retired from a career in the U.S. Army, it was Topinka who wrote the grant application for inclusion as one of the nation’s 100 official centennial memorials. This year is the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I.
“Joe is very energetic and has been instrumental in trying to find a way for the memorial to be higher up on the list [of village projects to complete],” Sisulak said.
The post members hope the rehabilitation of the memorial can be completed in time for the Memorial Day 2018 ceremony.