Naperville native Rita Harvard spent most of her life in her hometown, and those who knew her best say her civic involvement helped the city evolve into what it is today.
Harvard, 82, died Friday following a long illness. Except for a few years away at college and teaching in Dixon, she focused her energies on family and her community, donating countless hours to civic groups, her church and North Central College.
But perhaps she’ll be most remembered for her contribution to the city’s downtown landscape: a nearly one-acre oasis that bears her maiden name — Fredenhagen Park.
In 1996, she and her brother, Ted, decided to donate the land to the city to further the development of the downtown Riverwalk. The site was once home to their family’s Prince Castle — and later Cock Robin — ice cream shop, where as a little girl, Rita served the parlor’s signature cube scoops and One in a Million milkshakes.
The first portion of the Riverwalk was built in 1980, but the Cock Robin property was always a “missing link” that local leaders hoped would one day lead to a “continuous, barrier-free pedestrian connection,” said Rick Hitchcock, a member of the city’s Riverwalk Commission whose architectural firm designed Fredenhagen Park.
Despite the booming real estate market in the mid-1990s and potential to sell the land to developers, in the end, Rita and her brother believed it would be better to donate the land to the community, Hitchcock said.
“Think about how tempting it would be during a time of tremendous land appreciation in downtown — she could’ve sold the land. But she decided to donate it to the city,” Hitchcock said. “Her stature was small, but her influence was that mighty.”
A statue of her parents, Walter and Grace Fredengahen, now stands in the park in honor of their volunteerism to the community.
Walter was a founding member of the city’s Rotary Club in the early 1940s. It’s little wonder, then, that his daughter became the club’s first female president in 1994.
“She was proud and respectful of the fact that she came from a family that did a lot in the community. She took it as a responsibility to get engaged, and stay engaged,” said Ray Kinney, a fellow Rotary member, North Central trustee and local businessman.
He noted her keen ability to bring people together to work toward a common purpose.
For instance, they worked on a fundraising effort to build the college’s Wentz Concert Hall that would “not have gotten done as quickly and wonderfully as we did” had Rita not been involved, Kinney said.
She also was heavily involved at Grace United Methodist Church, having served on a steering committee that planned and built the church in 1970.
“If Naperville had a queen, it would be Rita Harvard,” Kinney said.
Longtime friend Gene Darfler, who met Rita in first grade at Ellsworth School, said Rita gained that reputation from an early age and was always involved in different school groups.
“She was everyone’s favorite,” Darfler said. “She was so popular.”
Visitation will be from 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Friedrich-Jones Funeral Home. Services will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Grace United Methodist Church, 300 E. Gartner Road, starting with a visitation at 10 a.m.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.