Keeping Memorial Circle’s Memory Alive

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On Memorial Day, 72 years ago, a group of women dedicated a park with 33 trees, each representing a man from Rockaway who made the ultimate sacrifice and lost their life during World War II. The women, who were wives, mothers, aunts, cousins, neighbors and friends of the young men, were determined to keep their memory alive, by creating a place to bring solace and comfort to their families—Memorial Circle. Today, a group of neighbors have made it their mission to maintain this place of peace, which would not be possible without the contributions of others.

Many may know that Beach 116th’s bayside Tribute Park as a place dedicated to those who lost their lives on September 11. With more than 70 lost from the local community alone, it serves as a reminder that Rockaway is a place that’s been touched by great loss. Today, the park is a place for people to reflect on those events and remember those who died. But way before Tribute Park, came another place for people to reflect and remember another big loss. As people drive along Rockaway Beach Boulevard in Rockaway Park, they pass a circular park, complete with several trees, benches and plaques that bear the names of the local men who died in WWII. In 1947, two years after the war ended, the ladies of the Belle Harbor Garden Club created that park in memory of those men. On May 30, 1947, the women dedicated the park in a ceremony that included decorating the trees with floral tributes, a prayer, a reading of the names of the servicemembers who gave their lives, and a playing of taps. Today, a similar ceremony is held every Memorial Day at Memorial Circle, also known as Veterans’ Circle.

Many who pass Memorial Circle each day may notice how well maintained it is. For several years, the women of the Belle Harbor Garden Club, with the help of the Jewish War Veterans, maintained this place of solace. However, as they grew older and passed on, the park started to go into disarray. That was until a new generation of neighbors stepped up to the plate. “The first time we worked on Memorial Circle in 1991, it looked terrible. It had become so overgrown that people didn’t realize there were pathways there and there was dog crap all over the place. We got a lot of volunteers and everyone brought out their own lawnmowers and worked on it all day long,” Maureen Walsh, one of the members of Friends of Memorial Circle said. “It’s hard to believe how bad it was because it looks so pristine today. But we had a lot of people from the community come and help.”

Around 2004, the Friends of Memorial Circle entered into an official partnership with the Department of Parks and Recreation, which owns the land, giving the group authority to maintain it. While Parks helps with things like providing flowers and replacing damaged flags, the Friends of Memorial Circle handle the general maintenance, which they have down to a science. After partnering with Parks, the group had a sprinkler system installed instead of having neighbors come by with buckets or local fire departments come help out with watering. They also hired a gardener which takes care of the landscaping. The group also pays for things like ribbons and flags to help decorate the park around Memorial Day for the annual ceremony.

Besides replacing the plantings each year and maintaining the park, few things have changed at the park over the years. The park remains dedicated to WWII servicemembers who died, but a few names have been added since 1947 to include other local veterans. They include U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal Michael Glover, who was killed in Iraq in 2006, and U.S. Army 1st Class Private, John McGonigal, who died in Vietnam in 1968. And on this Memorial Day, another name will be added to recognize a local that was killed on the SS Dorchester, which sank in 1943, during WWII.

Sometime after Hurricane Sandy, Friends of Memorial Circle became a 501c3 organization, which helps them apply for grants rather than going through the Jewish War Veterans, however in recent years, grants have started to dry up, while the need to maintain the park continues. As the park has always been made possible by a group of local residents, the Friends of Memorial Circle are hoping that the neighborhood will once again come through and help support their efforts to keep Memorial Circle in pristine condition. Back in the 1960s, records show that the Belle Harbor Garden Club paid less than $50 a year to maintain the park. But times have changed. Between the landscaping and gardening, maintenance of the sprinkler system, which sometimes needs repairs, and other small expenses for the Memorial Day ceremony, the Friends of Memorial Circle pays anywhere from $3,500 to $4,000 yearly to maintain the park. To help with the costs, the group is hoping for some monetary help from the community.

“We appreciate however small a donation,” Mike Honan, another Friend of Memorial Circle member, said. “Contributions have been coming in and we appreciate and value every penny. It’s put to good use. It all goes to that and only that.”

If you’d like to make a donation, all checks can be made out to Friends of Memorial Circle, and can be mailed to Friends of Memorial Circle, PO Box # 940174, Rockaway Park Post Office, Rockaway Park, NY 11694.

The Friends of Memorial Circle say that they’ll always keep this memorial alive. “We’ll continue doing this no matter what,” Fran Honan, another Friend of Memorial Circle member said. “This is the kind of thing you do for those who gave all.”

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