by Damon Fillman
A beautiful, sturdy, well-cared for bench in Wissahickon Park, just about 20 yards in front of Valley Green Inn, where people often stop to rest after a jog or after feeding Canada geese in Wissahickon Creek, tells a poignant story of a young man who left us much too soon.
Bob and Cathy Armstrong, residents of Ambler, are responsible for the plaque and bench at a location they have often visited over the years. The plaque and bench, which were placed at their current location in 2008, memorialize the loss of their son, Andrew, who died suddenly in 2006 of a heart attack at the age of 36. Andrew, the Armstrongs’ only child, was single.
The family contacted Fairmount Park officials, who provided the bench for approximately $1,500, and the Armstrongs were responsible for acquiring the plaque and maintaining the memorial. To Bob, the cost of the bench and plaque was of little concern since he and his wife were able to determine the location of the bench near Valley Green Inn. “We’re down there a lot riding our bikes and hiking,” he said. “We get a thrill seeing kids crawl around the bench.”
Although Bob and Cathy visit the park as often as possible, during the winter they put away their bikes and focus squarely on hiking. It is obvious that they lavish love on caring for the bench, which is in much better shape than many nearby benches. During the winter, the bench sees its most formidable enemy in the form of dropping temperatures and precipitation, so it’s important that the Armstrongs maintain it. “The bench is a very sturdy, concrete thing, and the wood is redwood from California,” Bob said, “but anytime you have untreated wood outside, it starts to wear. We sand and re-stain it every year.”
Beneath Andrew’s name is a line that obviously means a great deal to his parents: “Remember me for the times we loved and laughed.” Bob said, “That was a line read from a poem at his funeral.”
Despite the loss of his beloved son, Bob remains optimistic and cheerful and hopes that his story inspires others to memorialize a loved one in whatever way they feel is appropriate. Bob’s memory of the bench and its day of placement coincided with the opening of another Philadelphia landmark, one with a pair of boxing gloves. “The bench went up on the same day that the Rocky statue went up at the Art Museum,” he said.
Like the love that Sylvester Stallone’s character in “Rocky” had for Philadelphia, the Armstrongs’ affection for the Wissahickon Valley and the memories they shared with their son will remain on a bench that onlookers are welcome to enjoy and where they can create their own memories. For Bob, that’s what life is about: “I spend most of my time enjoying life. We look at this like a living memory.”
Wissahickon Park, which courses through sections of Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and Germantown, is only one section of Fairmount Park, the largest municipal park system in the world by far with about 9,300 acres of land.
Anyone can dedicate a bench or picnic table in the park, as the Armstrongs did, and it will be seen by the countless thousands of people who hike, jog or ride bicycles along Forbidden Drive every year. Bench and picnic table donations range in price, depending on the location and style. At present, the bench options available are a metal bench with center armrest or a redwood bench with exposed aggregate concrete sides. Picnic tables are made of oak.
The selection of a park location and bench style is subject to approval by the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation staff. The purchase price of a bench includes a 4″ x 6″ commemorative plaque. Bronze cast plaque wording is limited to six lines with up to 30 characters, including spaces, per line.
Fairmount Park began the park bench program in 1985 with memorial benches along Forbidden Drive, the gravel road that traces the meandering Wissahickon Creek from Northwestern Avenue down to Lincoln Drive.