Riverwalk ties city's traditions to its future

Twenty-two years ago this month I was feverishly packing boxes in Chatham, New Jersey, trying to downsize our possessions in anticipation of moving to Naperville.

In December 1992, our family of five had announced plans to move to the Midwest. Though the best-ever next-door neighbors in the whole world, Diane and Jack Conlan, had known for five years about our aim to move closer to my folks who still live in my childhood home in Muncie, Indiana, many Chathamites seemed surprised.

Everyone knew I loved Chatham, its history, its volunteerism and the way newcomers were welcome to participate in the village where George Washington really did sleep during the Revolutionary War.

While we researched numerous communities in Illinois and Indiana, Naperville kept rising to the top.

Initially attracted by North Central College and the city's reputation for supporting excellence in public education, I also was impressed by the community's respect for preserving its past and embracing plans for future growth. At the time, Naperville boasted a population of 89,000 residents with big plans to grow.

On New Year's Day 1993, I flew to O'Hare International Airport. That sunny afternoon, my cousin, Candyce Krumwiede, who lived here then, picked me up from the airport, then gave me my first tour of the then snow-covered city, stopping at Naper Settlement, the Riverwalk, and a little watering hole called The Beach along the north side of Jackson Avenue that had seen better days.

As we stood on the Riverwalk at Main Street and Jackson Avenue just before dusk, Candyce shared the inspirational story about volunteerism that had built the city's natural treasure along the DuPage River for Naperville's sesquicentennial anniversary.

Then, suddenly, thousands of tiny white lights began glistening all around us. In an instant, even before looking at the first of 32 homes that week, the grand illumination of Naperville spirit had captured my undivided attention.

Long story short, two months later, our family moved here, our three children enrolled in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 schools and our Naperville adventure began.

Soon I recognized that many families can trace their heritage back to Capt. Joseph Naper's days in the 19th century. Their ongoing commitment to create a thriving community for their families and businesses while welcoming newcomers had been exemplary, and that spirit hasn't changed.

We've certainly had the ups and downs of life that every family faces. We've witnessed the trials and tribulations of the city's development and growth to a population of nearly 145,000 residents. We've experienced good times and uncertain economies. While embracing all that history, we've never looked back.

Even when I disagree with the policies of our elected officials as I watch city council meetings from a seat in the back of the council chambers, I remain grateful to live and work in this engaging community that keeps moving forward.

Recognizing Naperville's remarkable risk-taking spirit, I've tried to present the bright side amid numerous challenges that unite us, eager to add two cents when someone will listen.

I'm truly happy to have had this column in the Daily Herald since 1999.

This story was triggered the other day when I discovered a large 18-by-24-inch poster behind a filing cabinet in the basement. The "thank you" message ignited fond memories of the Riverwalk 2000 campaign led by Glen Ekey and Ed Channell to raise money for the extension that now runs from Washington Street to Hillside Road.

Al Rubin, a former commissioner for both the Naperville Park District and the Riverwalk Commission, had organized a group called Riverwalk Renaissance to raise money to expand the winding path along the DuPage. I'd met Al through the Rotary Club of Naperville and was thrilled when he welcomed my help on the campaign back in 1996. Back then, I never imagined serving on the Riverwalk Commission.

As I read the names and businesses on the poster and reminisced about painting with Mary Lou Wehrli two colorful "DuPage River Banks" to collect coins for the campaign by the barrel, I noted how much our city has changed.

This past month, hopefuls have been kicking off the 2015 municipal election season. Twenty-four candidates are vying to serve on the nine-member city council that includes the mayor.

The next few months provide a chance for open discussions and stimulating opinions as we share the responsibilities that come with living and working in a caring, family-focused community.

As I've been reading profiles and websites of the candidates, I'm mindful that even in our high-tech electronic world, most candidates recognize that energy and enthusiasm for our established traditions continually connect our strong sense of community.

Yes, I cherish the Riverwalk!

• Stephanie Penick writes about Naperville regularly in Neighbor.

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