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Memorials sprinkled throughout Riverside Park

STORY BY NANCY SAPEY (Week of May 26, 2022)

While Vero’s Veterans Memorial Island Sanctuary is known for its monuments to veterans, another kind of memorial is sprinkled throughout adjacent Riverside Park – trees, benches, a fishing pier and gazebos dedicated to Vero residents’ births, deaths, anniversaries and friendships.

Bronze plaques engraved with names, dates and messages are affixed to a cement base in front of many of the live oaks that adorn the park, while other dedication plaques with names and words of endearment are affixed to the backs of wooden benches.

The dedication program is run by Nanette Haynes, grounds maintenance manager for the City of Vero Beach, who supervises Riverside Park as well as all parks throughout the city. The tree program was begun in 2000 by the Tree and Beautification Committee.

“We have no more room to plant additional trees in Riverside Park,” said Haynes. “The live oaks are planted out.” But she said many existing trees are available for new memorials.

Some plaques simply record names plus dates of birth and death. Others add touching tributes with poetry, bible quotes or loving phrases such as “Honey Bunch” and “Forever in the hearts of those who visit me.” Some plaques incorporate portraits.

A few donors have chosen to endow both a tree and a bench. “Visitors like to sit on their bench and contemplate while gazing at their tree.” Haynes explained.  “One man is regularly seen sitting and speaking to his deceased wife.”

The newest bench, recently installed along the fitness trail, commemorates a popular morning walker. The island resident, Stella B. Covill, recently passed away at 91 years old, was crowned with the moniker “Queen of the Park” on her bronze plaque.

Her loyal exercise friends paid for the tribute, which is located at the entry of the fitness trail near the parking lot.

A fast-moving morning walker passed by exclaiming, “You can’t miss her!”  while pointing to the location of the new bench.  “She’s always here now.”

The mysterious Heart Tree is an unofficial memorial along the fitness trail. A limb had to be removed from an oak tree leaving a scar in the bark in the shape of a heart. Someone painted it red. Nearby on the ground between two small hedges, shells are arranged in the shape of a large heart. Occasionally flowers are found at the scene. The back story remains a mystery.

Haynes said offerings at the tree base are discouraged as the maintenance crew has to clean up the floral remains and miscellaneous tokens left behind. “The Heart Tree is officially not allowed. It is tolerated but not encouraged,” she explained. “More out there, more for us to take care of.”

Procedures for officially dedicating a tree, a bench or a more unique struc-ture, are available through the city’s Public Works office. The city’s website details how to submit requests for memorials, the types of tree species al-lowed and costs for plaques.

Costs vary according to the choice of tree or bench, the plaque size and the number of words engraved. The process, depending on design, may take several months.

In cases where a plaque, bench or tree didn’t seem sufficient, larger struc-tures have been donated to grace the park and honor loved ones.

The northern end of the park has a fishing pier dedicated to Cole Coppola, a youth killed in an accident a few years ago. Completed in 2018, the pier which juts out into the river is a great spot for fishing, watching fireworks or star-gazing. It even is equipped with a recycling box for old fishing lines.

The Grand Pavilion, further along the walkway to the north, is an open-air structure dedicated to Virginia Robinson Downey and Dixon P. Downey.  Its center is a large gazebo with two smaller buildings on each side.

Some call it Vero’s Taj Mahal as it was built to memorialize Downey’s wife of 67 years prior to his own death.

The Little Flower Gazebo nearby on the water’s edge is also dedicated to the same woman. It has a red roof symbolizing a rose and the green pathway is the stem.

The Grand Pavilion accommodates up to 150 people and can be reserved for weddings, celebrations and meetings through the City of Vero Beach Recreation Department.