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Field of dreams now Heroes Park

Created: 18 Sep 2014

What once was a field of grass is now a field of dreams.

The former empty space behind the Norfolk Veterans Home has been transformed into Heroes Park, where veterans and their families and friends can enjoy the outdoors.

The 8-acre park has received high marks from veterans and their families, said Jenny Last of Norfolk. She serves on the Heroes Park Foundation board, which raised the $2.8 million needed to construct park.

“I love to read those thank-you notes,” she said “It means so much.”

The effort began more than six years ago. It was sparked by Duane Hodge, former administrator of the home, who suggested it might be nice to have a memory garden.

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The foundation board expanded on that idea to help fulfill the need for a larger space for events at the home. Up until recently, gatherings were held in the activity room, which can’t accommodate many people.

Now those events can be held under the park’s pavilion, where between 400 and 500 people can be seated in chairs, said Deb Becker, a veterans home employee who has worked with the project since it began.

The park and the pavilion were the site, for example, of the opening ceremonies for the Nebraska Vietnam Veterans reunion in August, which was attended by around 450 people.

The park also was used for the home’s Fourth of July celebration, Becker said.

At that event, children played on the playground equipment, shot baskets on the basketball court and entertained themselves while waiting for the fireworks show to begin, she added.

In past years, fireworks took place in front of the facility, which meant all of the cars had to be moved and other precautions had be made.

The open space at the back of the park is an ideal spot for such things, Becker said.

Veterans home residents come out regularly, too, she said. Some of the younger members often play basketball.

Smaller groups have gathered for family reunions, anniversary parties and other activities under the pavilion in one of the three gazebos or at one of the picnic areas.

The gazebos were already in place, but the foundation board has had the area around them landscaped with statues, shrubs and flowers.

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One is considered a serenity garden and includes a religious statue. Another is called “the dry creek bed” and features a bear grabbing for a fish in stream. That area is low and fills with water when it rains, which is why Judy Luebbert, the landscape designer from West Point, chose to make it look like a stream, Last said.

The park also includes seating areas — covered and uncovered — along the walking path, which is wide enough for wheelchairs.

Four of the seating areas were designed, constructed and donated by the family of the late Ray Matteo, who served in the U.S. Navy. The benches honor the four branches of the military and are designed to look like jeeps or tanks. Cut-out figures of soldiers stand behind the benches.

The soldiers’ features are in the process of being painted by Karl Reeder, a Norfolk artist, and are meant to look like actual people from the area.

One of the most striking features is the full-size windmill that sits among the tall grass in an area of the park that will be a wetlands due to the fact that it’s a natural drainage spot. The windmill was donated by a family from Dorchester.

The 40 trees planted this spring are doing well, said RJ Gall, foundation board chairman. Many are oak, while some are evergreens and other varieties.

The grass in the front of the park is also growing, thanks in part to the wet, cool conditions this summer, Gall said. The perimeter of the park features native grasses and wildflowers that will take some time to mature, he added.

The goal is to add more colorful plants and flowers next spring, Gall said, especially around the storage shed and bathroom and the basketball court.

Plans also call for horseshoe pits, raised gardens where residents can plant vegetables and flowers and more landscaping. Those features will be added as pledges are paid and funds become available, Last said.

Still, the long-awaited field of dreams is finally a reality, thanks, Last said, to people from the area and around the country who supported it — those who donated time, money, products and manpower.

“We couldn’t have done it without them,” Last said.

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