MOUNTAINSIDE — A long winter’s walk in the falling snow. A chance encounter with an old groundskeeper soon to retire.
From that walk, and that unexpected conversation, came an epiphany. From those two seemingly unrelated moments, Barbara Levinson realized what she wanted to do, to forever memorialize her son and husband.
In Union County’s Echo Lake Park, not far from her Mountainside home, she would use the money donated in their memories to refurbish the park’s lakeside gazebo and water wheel, which stopped turning decades ago.
The Olmsted-designed park, which straddles the Westfield-Mountainside border, was the scene of many fond family memories for the Levinsons. She and her husband, Joel, would take their son, Kipp, row boating on the lake when he was young. It was also the lake where he learned to fish.
As a teenager, Kipp ran cross-country for Jonathan Dayton High School. He and his teammates would run through Echo Lake as part of their workout. He was not only captain of the cross-country team, but the tennis team, along with serving as editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. In 1985, Kipp was voted Mr. Regional, a title awarded the senior who contributed the most to the school.
Kipp planned on attending Duke University when his life was cut short. He died in a single car accident in his senior year.
Dr. Joel Levinson, died in February. In addition to his medical practice in Springfield, he served as chief of gastroenterology, and later chief of medicine at Overlook Hospital in Summit. In 1990, he became vice-president of the medical staff at Overlook, and then President.
After her son died, Mrs. Levinson donated funds to make some repairs to the gazebo. But it was after her husband’s death, and the additional contributions made in his memory, that she looked to do something more substantial.
Her donation of $17,000 enabled a new waterwheel to be designed and built by a craftsman in Georgia, along with some needed structural repairs to the gazebo. County carpenters and other public works staff provided the labor.
“We really cannot thank Mrs. Levinson enough,” said Union County Freeholder Chairman Deborah Scanlon. “Her gift, in memory of her son, Kipp, and husband, Joel, is also a gift to everyone who visits this park.”
“Echo Lake is one of the jewels of Union County’s park system, with its lakes and Great Lawn, which is home to summer concerts and winter sledding. And now, to just be able to sit in the gazebo and watch the waterwheel turning once again, it’s just wonderful,” Scanlon said.
Plans for rededicating the gazebo and waterwheel had to be cancelled due to the Halloween eve storm and will be rescheduled for the spring, according to county parks officials.
The Echo Lake waterwheel is one of nearly 100 waterwheels Spencer Boyd made at his Georgia shop this year. It is 11’10” in diameter—the tallest he could build and clear the overpasses coming up Interstate 95.
It’s made of western red cedar from Missouri and white cedar from Alberta, Canada and weighed 2,000 pounds when it arrived. But once it becomes waterlogged, Boyd said, a wheel will double in weight.
The installation this summer went smoothly, although it took a little longer than his normal 30-minute installation because of the time it took to get the brakes lined up, he said.
“Waterwheels are very simple. It’s just that we don’t live with them every day, the way they did a hundred years ago,” Boyd said.
However, he did warn that visitors to the wheel may at times hear a groaning sound.
“All wheels over six or eight feet have a groaning or rubbing sound. Most people who work with waterwheels say ‘it’s singing.’ Then it will stop for a few years and start up again.”
Levinson said she still remembers the winter day, about a year after Kipp died, walking in Union County’s Briant Park in Summit. She saw a bench that appeared to have a plaque on it.
“It is so unlike me to clamor through snow, with my sneakers, through a snow drift, but I did and the plaque described how the bench was donated in memory of someone,” she said.
So Levinson wrote a check to the parks department, but indicated she wanted to have the bench placed in Echo Lake.
When the bench came in, she went down to the park to find an appropriate spot.
“There was an old groundskeeper there who was getting ready to retire. I wish I remembered his name. And he started to tell me all about the history of the park and the Olmsted legacy, and the philosophy of building parks for the people, not the elite, as they were doing in Europe,” Levinson said.
After her husband died and more money was donated in his memory, Levinson realized the memorial fund she started could take on a much bigger project. And she recalled her walk through Echo Lake with the groundskeeper and their stop at the gazebo–and how it was so sorely in need of repair.
Levinson said she is thrilled with the way everything has turned out.
“I go there a lot. I still walk the dog there and I’ll stop off and check it out,” she said. “It’s a very peaceful, beautiful place. It has a sort of Japanese feeling. Many times there are photographers there and people painting. The gazebo was put in a fabulous spot.”
“It’s very touching to have something that will remain forever in a park with their names on it.”
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