The Daily Plant : Monday, August 25, 2014
Remembering Three Giants With A “Parks Connection”
This summer saw the passing of three celebrated individuals of diverse backgrounds, each having had a parks connection: actors Ruby Dee (October 27, 1922-June 11, 2014) and Eli Wallach (December 7, 1915-June 24, 2014), and athlete, war hero and missionary Louis Zamperini (January 26, 1917-July 2, 2014).
Ruby Dee was a trailblazing actress of incomparable integrity and talent. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she moved to New York City as a child, was raised in Harlem and attended Hunter High School. A pioneering African American actress, she got her start with the American Negro Theater, which also featured Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. Long married to actor Ossie Davis, Dee is known for her numerous performances on stage and screen, perhaps best known for her performances in A Raisin in the Sun (in theater and the movies) and in the Spike Lee-directed film, Do the Right Thing.
Dee and Davis were long active in social causes, and in 1970 Dee was the recipient of the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League. In the late 1990s Dee and Davis led a massive Labor Day anniversary parade in Union Square Park, dressed in 19th century working-class period costume. Later Dee acted in several fundraisers to commission Invisible Man: A Memorial to Ralph Ellison. At the unveiling in 2003 of this striking sculpture at Riverside Drive and 150th Street, that honors the distinguished author, Dee was a principal speaker, and spoke passionately about the creative muse and its ability to bring about social change.
June also saw the loss of Brooklyn native Eli Wallach, the oldest working actor in Hollywood. A star of stage and screen, Wallach was honored in 2010 by the American Academy of Motion Pictures with an Oscar awarded for Lifetime Achievement. Born in 1915, Wallach appeared in more than 50 movies, including The Magnificent Seven, How the West Was Won, and most recently Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. He had been married to actress Ann Jackson since 1948.
Omitted from any obituary for Wallach is his early service with the Parks Department. In response to a query from our office during preparation for a historical exhibition on Brooklyn Parks in the late 1980s, Wallach wrote: “In the late 1930s, I was hired by the New York City Parks Department as a temporary Playground Director. I worked at parks near the Brooklyn Navy Yard—also at the Arsenal in Central Park—where believe it or not I did some ordering of food for animals in the Zoo. I played softball in Prospect Park—a beautiful park. As Playground Director I supervised play and planned programs for children. Best wishes, Eli Wallach.” Despite all the memorable performances and accolades of his long and distinguished acting career, Wallach clearly had never forgotten these early formative park experiences.
On July 2, the extraordinary life of former track star, Louis Zamperini, came to an end. 78 years earlier to the day, Zamperini, a street-wise kid from Torrance, Califronia, first came to prominence at the American Olympic Track and Field Trials held at Triborough Stadium on Randall’s Island. At Randall’s Island, he squeaked out a win against world champion Don Lash in the 5,000 meters, and thus qualified for the infamous Berlin Olympics at which Jesse Owens excelled in the presence of the Nazi hosts and their leader Adolf Hitler.
Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand wildly successful biography of Zamperini, chronicles his extraordinary life. Though he finished 8th at the Berlin competition, his kick on the final lap so captured Der Fuhrer’s attention, that he sought a private audience with the plucky runner. When the United States entered World War II, Zamperini enlisted, and as a combat bombardier, was shot down with two comrades flying over the Pacific Ocean. He survived a 47-day ordeal in a dinghy with no readily available source of food or fresh water, only to be seized by the Japanese and tortured mercilessly by his captors.
Believed to be dead, Zamperini was mourned at a massive memorial service held at Madison Square Garden. With the resolution of the war, Zamperini was released. A chance encounter with the evangelist Billy Graham caused him to become an inspirational speaker, and later he absolved his former captors of their war crimes. At the 1998 Winter Olympics held in Nagano, Japan, he was one of the torch bearers en route to the games.
And so today we honor the memory of Ruby Dee, Eli Wallach, and Louis Zamperini, each of whom left their mark on the world and on our parks history.
Submitted by Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities
QUOTATION FOR THE DAY
“What makes something special is not just what you have to gain,
but what you feel there is to lose.”
(1970 - )
Directions to Riverside Park
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- Remembering Three Giants With A “Parks Connection”