By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — There’s no telling if vandals took time to read the inscription on a granite bench they tossed into Round Pond, breaking off one of its legs.
Did they realize it was dedicated in memory of a 10-year-old boy who attended school just around the corner from the pond, or that he died when he was in the fifth-grade? Maybe they weren’t around in May 2000 when former Pentucket Lake School student Justin Thurlo was killed in an accident in Kingston, N.H., where his family had moved a few months prior.
More than a year after the death, the city’s Trails Committee dedicated the bench in Thurlo’s memory and placed it along the Lawrence Street side of Round Pond in the Alfred DiBartolomeo Memorial Park, which is named in memory of a city public works official.
Last Friday, Haverhill Brightside organization volunteer David LaBrode was checking on the park’s two wooden benches, which he’d refurbished with help from a friend, when he noticed things were out of place. The granite bench bearing Thurlo’s name was missing and the two wooden benches had been moved. LaBrode found the granite bench in the water, upside down and with one leg broken off. One of the wooden benches had been moved about 100 feet and the other was sitting in the water undamaged.
LaBrode was angry and could not imagine why vandals would target the benches, including the memorial to Thurlo.
“It saddens me to see such flagrant disregard for not only public property, but also for a bench dedicated to a child who died tragically,” he said.
There’s nothing fancy about this little park. There are no swings or other playground equipment, just a few benches at the edge of Round Pond where you can enjoy one of the city’s most scenic spots.
Haverhill resident Gretchen Hildebrandt was there yesterday with her mother, whom she picks up from a local nursing home each week to spend time in the park. They brought folding lawn chairs and were enjoying the beautiful summer afternoon.
When Hildebrandt was told the granite memorial bench had been thrown into the water, she shook her head in disgust.
“What a shame,” she said looking out at the water. “Nothing is sacred.”
According to police, fifth-grader Justin Thurlo was killed when a concrete block wall collapsed on him while he helped a neighbor with a basement renovation project. Officials said the 16-by-5-foot section of wall which fell on him was under the back side of the red one-story ranch home, between a cellar bulkhead and the home’s back door.
LaBrode said he discovered the damages to the park benches last Friday morning while driving by the park. He notified police, the mayor and other city officials.
Two years ago, LaBrode launched a project to repair or replace more than a dozen benches that had fallen into disrepair since the city installed them 10 or 15 years ago in various parks, including the Isaac Merrill Park, Winnekenni Park and Gale Park.
This summer, he refurbished a rotted wooden bench at Theresa Baumann Memorial Park on Lincoln Avenue and did the same for a bench in a park across from the TD Bank on Route 125 in Bradford.
“What we do is simple,” LaBrode said about his handyman skills. “I bring home six 2-by-4s, 6-feet long, then I notch them out, sand them down, then prime and top coat in what I call ‘park and recreation green.’’’
He said he buys the wood or it’s given to him. He buys paint from the Arthur Sharp True Value store in Bradford.
“I walked in one day and asked for a green color paint to use on city park benches and they called it ‘park and recreation green,’” LaBrode said.
“I sand them down, prime them and top coat them,” he said about the wood slats of the benches he refurbishes. “The key is to prepare the wood for installation or else it won’t last long.”
He got help in refurbishing benches from his friend Mark Fairbrother, who expressed disbelief when LaBrode told him about the recent damages.
“It’s disappointing to say the least,” Fairbrother said. “Unfortunately, this is the kind of activity that the city must constantly keep in mind when planning any installations in public spaces. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that the effort and good work that folks like Dave continue to pour into such projects will prevail in improving many areas of our city.”
LaBrode said he is waiting for the Highway Department to send someone to pull Thurlo’s bench out of the water.
“Somebody spent money to buy this memorial bench and now who is going to pay to replace it?” LaBrode said.
He said he also wonders who will repair or replace memorial benches purchased by citizens in memory of a loved one should those benches become the target of vandals.
In the meantime, LaBrode was able to get the two wooden benches back into their original spots.
“This is the sixth time this year that I had to relocate one of the benches back to where they were originally placed, but the first time someone had move one into the pond,” LaBrode said, adding that on the spot where the bench had originally been placed he found two broken Bud Light beer bottles.
LaBrode guesses it would have taken at least two people to move the two wooden benches with heavy concrete legs and arms and that when he finds this kind of vandalism he works fast to correct the situation.
“You have to react quickly when things go wrong to show these people the city is not going to let the damages linger,” he said.
LaBrode said he can’t imagine why anyone would want to damage a park bench.
“Whoever it was, they obviously have no respect for anything,” he said. “If they can do this, what’s it going to escalate to?