As Volunteer Appreciation Month wraps up, I'm mindful that Naperville's generous community spirit, a year-round activity, is one of many things that attracted us to move here.
Follow just about any path through the city's rich history and you'll discover gems that began with a citizens initiative enhanced by volunteerism. Over time, all have had a positive impact on local culture and property values.
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Coming ThursdayComing Thursday
This is the first of a two-part look at volunteerism in Naperville by Around Naperville columnist Stephanie Penick. Coming Thursday: How does the spirit of volunteerism mesh with debates about benefits for city council members?
For instance, back in 1963, Naperville resident May Theilgaard Watts wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune that led to the creation of the Illinois Prairie Path, one of the nation's first rail-trail conversions. With support of 13 founding board members and countless volunteers, Watts' vision turned into reality. The Prairie Path continues to thrive 51 years later.
Also consider Naper Settlement, where preservation of our city's early architecture is interpreted in a 12-acre park setting that was given to the city 70 years ago. Thanks to dedicated boards of volunteers since 1969, the 19th-century living-history museum continually adapts with plans to embrace the future.
Or think about the Riverwalk, a grass-roots effort to create a brick path along the DuPage River to commemorate the city's sesquicentennial back in 1981.
When we first arrived in 1993, the Riverwalk ran from Main Street toward Sindt Woods. Discussions then bubbled up and soon the winding path meandered through the wooded property to Jefferson Avenue.
In time, another extension was proposed from the Washington Street Bridge to Hillside Road for an initiative called Riverwalk 2000, complemented with a design for Fredenhagen Park on the old Cock Robin property. Since 2003, the gateway to downtown and North Central College has come to life with commemorative gardens, benches for quiet reflection surrounding the Exchange Club Memories Fountain and much more.
Some folks might be unaware of the thousands of volunteer hours that carefully conceived and built our city's natural treasure, a public/private partnership for the past 33 years. More than two miles of pathways jettison from the signature serpentine brick Riverwalk that extends 1.75 miles from Jefferson to Hillside.
Today, the beautifully landscaped linear park serves as a centerpiece for concerts, art fairs, weddings, charity walks and fundraising festivals. Our city loves its outdoor events!
The other evening, I ran into Cliff Preston at one of many dinners in April when other volunteers were recognized. I thanked Cliff for his service on the Riverwalk Commission during the major growth and development of the park from 1987 to 2003.
As owner of an independent family construction business, Cliff's attention to detail and big heart were left on the Riverwalk early every morning during walks before work to check maintenance needs.
As one of many Riverwalk devotees, Cliff volunteered for the greater good of the community. His skillful dedication and can-do spirit kept the Riverwalk moving forward -- especially during budget workshops with the city to acquire necessary funds for capital improvements.
From where I've been sitting for 20-plus years, usually in the back row at city council meetings and workshops or Riverwalk Commission meetings (though not as often now that Riverwalk growth is in quiet mode), I'll likely never observe another selfless volunteer quite like Cliff.
Our city's good fortune is that subsequent "term-limited" commissioners have followed Cliff's high standards to care for our city's "crown jewel," a free and open space where all ages are welcomed every time they visit downtown.
And make no mistake. There's no shortage of residents desiring to fill the seats on more than 20 boards and commissions, as well as others who volunteer to serve our schools, park district, faith organizations, service clubs, neighborhoods, etc.
Thoughtful folks from all walks of life continually contribute to this engaged community with contagious social responsibility and without concern for monetary gain. I am grateful.