My dad would have turned a young 69 this week. This was his fifth birthday since his death in fall 2011 and it still feels odd not mailing a card, baking some of his favorite chocolate chip cookies or calling him up on the phone.
“What are you going to do for him today?” asked my husband on the morning of his birthday.
“I’m going to check up on his playground.”
The parks department in Corvallis, Oregon, where my dad lived for more than 20 years, is naming a new playground after him. It’s pretty cool. It is something my dad advocated for while he lived — not the naming of course, but the playground itself.
Dad lived for many years downtown, in a condo building set along a sprawling riverfront park that spanned the length of many city blocks. He spent a lot of time in the park, visiting the weekly farmer’s market and festivals, strolling the path for exercise, and stopping to visit with people he knew. Many of those people were the children of Corvallis.
Dad knew a lot of kids in town through his volunteer work at local schools and his church. And he was a recognizable, if not unforgettable, figure. He attracted attention wherever he went, whether he liked it or not.
Dad lost both legs just above his knees when he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam. He came home in a wheelchair and used one for next 43 years of his life.
Kids were drawn to him not only because of their curiosity about his legs, but for his honesty, his gentle manner, and the interest he showed them. He made kids feel important, and he always made time for them.
“Do your legs hurt?” they’d ask.
“Will they grow back?”
“How do you put your pants on?”
“One leg at a time, just like you.”
It was fascinating to watch and listen to his interactions, and admittedly, slightly frustrating when we were only in town for a weekend visit. A two-block walk for coffee could take forever, depending on how many people we ran into. Often, Dad would just stop and watch kids play.
“Children make you remember the magic,” he said. “They still have it. It makes you remember what’s important. And what’s not.”
He thought a lot about the needs of children. While there was a fountain at the riverfront park for them to play in during the summer, there was no playground. He felt there should be and not just any playground. He wanted an ADA playground, accessible to all children. Dad researched and drew up plans and lobbied the city many times, but his dream went nowhere, at least while he lived.
After his death, however, his friends went to work and the city council not only granted the playground, but they voted to put Dad’s name on it. I can think of no greater honor!
A group called Friends of Corvallis Parks began raising funds. I checked in on their progress this week and learned all of the funding is now in place. Amazing work!
The parks department is in the final stages of deciding the exact riverfront location for The Ronald Naasko Playground, with a deadline sometime this year. By next year, I expect a grand opening with Dad’s Corvallis friends. I can’t wait to cut the ribbon — and then watch the children play. Just like my dad.
Happy birthday, Dad.
Tomorrow: I’ll write an updated bio for the Ronald Naasko Playground page of the Friends of Corvallis Parks website, if they’d like it.
Feature photo credit: Jeremy F. Harrison, Corvallis Gazette-Times, 11/15/1997.
Photo caption: My dad at the Old Mill Center for Children and Families, a preschool that integrated mainstream and special-needs kids in the same classrooms. Dad volunteered there for more than 20 years.