WILDWOOD, N.J. (AP) — Every time Deborah DiPierro took a bike ride on the Boardwalk or strolled the beach, she always stopped at the wooden bench at Bennett Avenue.
Attached to it was a plaque memorial for her parents: “In loving memory of Edwin and Eleanor MacAdams. Forever in our hearts.”
“That was the special place where I would go,” she said of the memorial bench she purchased from the city in 2007.
But one day in July, she was surprised to find that the bench was gone.
“All I saw was an empty place,” said DiPierro, who calls Sewell and Wildwood home. “I was in tears, and the next day I went to City Hall.”
Late last year, the city began replacing the older, wooden benches with new durable blue metal benches, using Urban Enterprise Zone funds for the upgrade. But in taking down the benches, the city also removed the plaques.
No one told those who bought the benches or the plaques. And that’s resulted in some ill feeling among those who thought the messages they bought were supposed to last forever, or at least as long as the bench.
“I think it was just poorly implemented, and the result was a lot of disgruntled people,” Mayor Gary DeMarzo said, noting that removal of the benches began before he became mayor.
The memorial bench program goes back at least five years. Anyone who wanted to could purchase a bench for $150 and a plaque for $20.
Since they were removed, the brass or plastic plaques, many showing the wear and tear of sitting in the salt air, have been placed in a box in the city Clerk’s Office where they wait to be reclaimed. The city is developing a new bench program for new participants, while trying to resolve the issue for those who already purchased a bench.
Other cities have similar memorial bench programs. Ocean City sold benches on the Boardwalk and elsewhere in town for $650 apiece, with the person buying the bench supplying the plaque. The program ended in 2008 after the city sold all the benches, about 450 on the Boardwalk alone.
The many messages on the Wildwood plaques are heartfelt.
“Chuck and Theresa Met here August 1965,” read one plaque. “In loving memory of Marie (Nanny) Bierman and Frances (Mom-Mom) Rode Resting in Wildwood Forever,” read another.
Theresa Lappe, the 16-year-old Theresa who met 17-year-old Chuck in 1965, hadn’t heard about the changes with the benches until a reporter called.
“My husband and I met there on Wildwood Avenue,” Lappe said. “I was hanging out with my girlfriends, and he was hanging out with his boyfriends.”
The couple, both from Philadelphia, went on to marry and will mark their 40th wedding anniversary next year.
“We had our picture taken with it. We told our friends where to find it,” she said of the bench, becoming emotional as memories of her time in Wildwood came back.
“I’m going to cry. It’s where my life began,” she said.
“Oh, I hope they put our plaque back,” Lappe said. “I thought it would be there until the bench died, but the bench was in good condition (in September 2009).”
Glendale, N.Y. resident Jerry Lawless and his family were equally disappointed when they discovered the bench and plaque placed in memory of his wife, Linda, at Maple Avenue was gone.
His daughter, Danielle, was visiting Wildwood and the family condominium when she went looking for it.
“She called me all upset and said, ‘Daddy, the bench is gone,”‘ Lawless said.
Wildwood had been the family’s vacation home for 30 years.
“I felt very disappointed,” Lawless said. “They never told me there would be a time limit on it or anything.”
It wasn’t the first time a memorial to his wife was moved. He had also placed a memorial at the since-demolished Shea Stadium in New York. When the new Citi Field stadium was built to replace it, she received a memorial brick in its place.
“(Wildwood and Shea Stadium) were her two favorite places,” Lawless said.
Many purchasers, including DiPierro, said memorial messages weren’t meant to be temporary.
“We thought we purchased a bench and plaque to be on the Boardwalk forever,” DiPierro said.
The application she and others completed for the benches did not specify how long the benches would be in place, but she said the word-of-mouth at the time was it was forever. Her parents were homeowners in Wildwood, and the town was a special part of their lives.
Since she went to City Hall, officials have been keeping her posted, but a final decision from City Commission must be reached before the old plaques are replaced or new ones issued.
City Administrator Dale Goodreau said a committee has been established to come up with the standards that will guide the look of the new plaques, including fonts and number of characters, and other guidelines for the new memorial bench program.
“We’ll reach out to all the people who had benches and make an offer about being on the new benches for a length of time,” he said.
DeMarzo said the city would issue apology letters to the estimated 105 people who had memorial benches, set standards for the new plaques, send another letter explaining the process, and then create a resolution or ordinance setting up the new memorial program.
The new plaques will likely have 25 characters, meaning many of the old messages will have to be shortened.
DeMarzo expects a resolution can be passed in the next 30 days to get the replacement plaque standards in place, followed by an ordinance establishing the new memorial bench program. And over the winter, the plaques can be made and installed by the spring.
The commissioners must still decide how long the plaques will be in place, such as for the life of the bench or a set time, likely to be 10 years.
DeMarzo said the previous bench program lacked structure, adding that a new program would allow new plaques to be placed on the blue benches for $600 for half a bench or $1,000 for a whole bench. That fee would apply to new participants.
“We’re going to bring them into the process, notify them of the process and offer them a fair resolution,” DeMarzo said of the existing plaque owners.
Goodreau said the new benches will come with a set lifespan and anyone purchasing plaques will be made aware that the benches and plaques won’t be in place forever.
“We’re going to make people happy as best we can,” Goodreau said.
For Lappe, DiPierro and Lawless, that means placing a plaque back in the places that mean so much to them.
“Wildwood is such a special place for me,” Lappe said.