A few dozen people gathered Saturday for the rededication of the Wishing Bench in East Lawrence. A few dozen more — third, fourth and fifth graders of New York Elementary School — were present through their works of art, created for the bench.
But thoughts and memories of others who had touched and been touched by the bench filled out the bustling gathering.
The East Lawrence landmark sits at Ninth and Delaware streets and invites passers-by to “Sit and make a wish – You will not be disappointed.”
Parts of the bench and all of the artwork that had covered it were destroyed in an overnight fire on Aug. 15. Perry-based Hamm Companies has an office just down the street, and President Jeff Hamm volunteered the company’s services to repair it. Within three weeks, the bench was restored, with the addition of a ramp so that wheelchair users can enjoy it, too.
Decorations started to come back quickly — even before the bench was repaired — but it was still a little sparse. Within an hour on Saturday, just before the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association block party started at Hobbs Park, many of the open spaces were covered with balloons, flowers, works of art and other offerings.
Sadly, one of the pieces that was destroyed in the fire was one created by Catherine Reed, the longtime caretaker of the bench who died on May 25.
Ginger Chance said it was strange how the piece had endured for years as other things come and go or fall apart.
“It was here to the very end,” said Chance, who will be taking over as the keeper of the bench “out of respect and love for Catherine Reed.”
The meaning of the Wishing Bench is unique for all those who appreciate it. “It’s almost beyond the wishes” — it becomes very personal, and for some people it’s been part of personal healing, Chance said.
Hopefully, the space will offer healing to family members of 3-year-old Roman Hardy, too. His mother and his twin sister, Mila, were among those in attendance Saturday. The boy died Sept. 9 after a very sudden illness. Cold-like symptoms progressed rapidly into a serious infection that caused his organs to fail within just 25 hours, according to a GoFundMe page set up to help pay for Mila’s college. He died in his parents’ arms.
Several young girls decorated signs with messages, “We miss you Roro!” and “I love you Roman.” Many people in attendance did not realize the significance of the signs until the family had already left. But “That’s another amazing thing, that these children can have this grieving and love” in the space of the Wishing Bench, Chance said.
Tony Peterson, of East Lawrence, had been photographing the bench each week for about a year before it went up in flames. He said he’s thinking that eventually he wants to create a book, if he can find the funding to make it happen.
He brought some contributions to the bench on Saturday: a small bottle of sand from the Bahamas, which came from a trip with his mother, and a trophy he found in the trash long ago for first place in a 2010 Skinny Guy Strength Competition.
Don E. Brennaman also stopped by to contribute to the bench. He brought a carousel greeting card holder, which can hold numerous decorations. It was placed on the platform behind the bench. Brennaman said he’d thought about using it for wind chimes.
Barry Shalinsky, president of ELNA, and KT Walsh, vice president, spoke briefly to thank those in attendance Saturday, firefighters, and those who extended thoughts, prayers and well wishes after the fire.
“All the love and support was overwhelming,” Shalinsky said.
Hamm and family were also present.
“My wife’s been out here, my kids have been out here. We all enjoy the bench and it was just a great project for us and something that we’ve just really enjoyed doing, so I’m glad everybody enjoys it,” Jeff Hamm said.
Shalinsky said that soon, the bench will have a new roof, too, thanks to Diamond Everley Roofing Contractors, another Perry business.
But some of the scars from the fire will stay — and that was a very deliberate choice, Shalinsky said.
“I really love all that melted, charred fiberglass residue up there because it’s not all pristine and shiny, you know? That’s part of its life and part of its history and part of its survival,” Shalinsky said. “That’s really like the story of early Lawrence, from Quantrill’s raid and the fire, and rebirthing stronger and more resilient.”