John Petro started coaching youth softball in Upper Arlington in 1972 when his daughter, Cara, then 9, decided she wanted to play the game.
He began as an assistant coach for her team and then remained involved as his other children, Susan, John and Pamela, also played various sports. He racked up 33 years as president of the Upper Arlington Athletic Association from 1975-2008 as it organized youth baseball, football and a drill team, in addition to softball teams.
He said his love for softball and teaching young people the game and about competition kept him coming back.
"I loved coaching and teaching and I couldn't stop," he said. "I just wanted to be there."
During his tenure, he helped convert the youth softball program from slow-pitch for students in grades 3-8 to fast-pitch and adding to the divisions over the years.
Now, members of the Upper Arlington Field Sports Committee have proposed creating a pillared entryway to Northam Park in permanent recognition of those who have contributed to youth sports programs -- and they want to name it Petro Plaza.
"We felt like it was long overdue for a person of that stature to have some recognition," said Trevor Warner, president of the Upper Arlington Softball Association and a member of the city's Field Sports Committee. "We do feel like Northam Park is the central park for Upper Arlington, and it is where most of the field sports take place."
Petro, 80, and his wife, Carol, live just outside Upper Arlington in northwest Columbus. He said he is "stunned, overwhelmed and pleased" that someone would want to recognize his work with youth athletics in the community.
"I don't know quite how to explain it but to say what I did at Northam Park I did because of a tremendous interest in Upper Arlington's youth and promoting athletics in the community," he said.
Petro is quick to point out that the success of the Upper Arlington Athletic Association through the years hasn't been the work of one person. There have been dozens of dedicated volunteers who have helped provide local children the chance to play sports, he said.
The proposed project could involve widening an existing sidewalk at the Northam Road entrance to the park from 4 feet to 8 feet. The intent is to acknowledge the "upper echelon" of Upper Arlington's youth sports volunteers, Warner said.
Upper Arlington City Council voted unanimously Sept. 24 to approve a resolution of support for the project and giving residents the go-ahead to begin a private fundraising campaign to pay for it.
"I think the city came back with an estimate of $50,000 to build, and we've had no concerns with the ability to raise $50,000," Warner said.
City Manager Ted Staton said Petro Plaza would be similar -- but smaller in scale -- to Northam Park's main pedestrian entrance, which fronts Tremont Road and is near the pedestrian drop-off area from the Tremont Road parking lot into the park.
"The proposed Petro Plaza park entryway would be comprised of two pillars anchoring a seating wall on both sides of the entrance," Staton said. "To better accommodate pedestrian traffic at this location, the Parks and Recreation Department plans to widen the existing sidewalk from 4 feet to 8 feet, and is working with the city engineer to determine the optimum location relative to visibility, access and safety.
"Signage for Northam Park and the Petro Plaza would be placed on the pillars facing onto Northam Road," Staton said. "Facing into the park, the pillars would provide space for the recognition of qualifying youth sports volunteers, to be selected through a formalized, criteria-based process developed by the Field Sports Committee."
If the project moves forward, Warner said, the Field Sports Committee would establish a nomination process for plaques recognizing other contributors to local youth sports programming to be added to the plaza. Honorees likely would be approved by committee members.
Upper Arlington City Councilwoman Sue Ralph said she supports recognizing residents who contribute to enhancing the community, particularly through volunteerism. She added that she's likely to support Petro Plaza as long as construction plans don't affect the park's current configuration or present problems for future work that might be considered at the park.
"This is something we had on the wish list for a really long time," she said. "Thanks to the benevolence of the sports groups, we have it."
Council President Kip Greenhill said he's "completely in support" of the Petro Plaza concept.
"I think it's excellent and it's a great way to recognize people who contribute a lot to the community," he said. "I can't think of a better person to name the plaza after."