Letter: Many monuments in park, but none that honor Stephen Wilcox

Letter: Many monuments in park, but none that honor Stephen Wilcox


The following letter was previously sent to Stephen McAllister, president, Westerly Library & Wilcox Park.

Dear Mr. McAllister: At the risk of telling you something you doubtless already know, I would like to begin by pointing out that Wilcox Park is a magical place. A visitor can enter burdened with the cares of modern life and emerge on the far side with a reinvigorated spirit. It is that kind of place.

Over the years, I’ve walked down its paths and breathed in its beauty, always impressed. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I realized that something was missing.

The park is a 14-acre patch of bucolic splendor created by the widow of a noted inventor named Wilcox who earned the first of his nearly 50 patents at the tender age of 23.

Stephen Wilcox, who grew up in Westerly, is long gone, of course, but the company he and boyhood friend George Babcock founded in 1867 carries on today as a global leader in energy and environmental technologies. And his legacy and public-spirited contributions to the community live on in both the library and its beautiful park. Not that anyone who walked through Wilcox Park would know it.

Visitors could stroll through this expanse of green, with its beautiful floral beds, graceful trees along its walkways, and distinctive fountains that grace the landscape at either end, and see nary a reference to this genuinely accomplished individual.

For sure, they would see tributes, both large and modest, to an eclectic host of people, but not Mister Wilcox, arguably this community’s most accomplished figure.

On a hillside, perched atop a boulder, is the statue of a soldier, rifle cradled in his arm, that pays homage to those who served in the Spanish American War.

Not terribly far away is a bench dedicated to Ruth Buzzi, born in Westerly and raised in Stonington, who played Gladys Ormphby on the wildly popular “Laugh-In” show on national television, starting in the late 1960s.

The undefeated heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano of Brockton, Mass., 90 miles to the north, is represented in stone. Nearby, Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, a two-time winner of the Boston Marathon and an Olympic competitor who was born in Westerly, has his stone.

The park even features a giant bronze rabbit sculpture, a nod to the Margaret Wise Brown book “The Runaway Bunny.” And who could miss the even more gigantic representation of Christopher Columbus, the Genoan who thought he had landed in Asia when he actually came ashore in what we know today as the Caribbean.

All in all, it is a haphazard collection with no discernible theme. Notably missing is any reference to the park’s namesake, Stephen Wilcox, or to his friend and partner, George Babcock. By any standard of measure that is a significant omission.

In the century-and-a-half since the two gentlemen from Westerly founded Babcock & Wilcox, the company has had some notable achievements and some interesting brushes with history.

Among them:

In World War II, Babcock & Wilcox boilers powered over half of the U.S Navy ships in the fleet.

The company designed and produced components for the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, today a museum in Groton, a 15-minute drive to the west.

It was a Babcock & Wilcox boiler that was destroyed in the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history.

The park that bears the name of this accomplished native son has long been a point of local pride by residents and visitors alike. I think it is well past time that Mr. Wilcox be recognized.

The nonprofit Memorial and Library Association you head oversees the park and the Westerly Public Library on the Broad Street end of it, and that is why I am writing to you. Your group has long roots in the community, dating as it does back to 1892 when it was established to commemorate the volunteer soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War — another group that is not represented in the park, by the way.

The library began operations with a collection of 5,000 volumes two years later, thanks to the initiative of none other than Mr. Wilcox, the inventor and industrialist whose largess has somehow managed to avoid being recognized in the beautiful park made possible by a later bequest of his widow.

Even at this late date, it would be nice to give Mister Wilcox his due in the park that bears his name.

Bruce MacDonald


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