At the height of its success during the Korean War era, Rockwell International employed more than 25,000 people, manufacturing civilian and military aircraft and, eventually, even space-shuttle parts at its sprawling plant at North Yearling Road and East Fifth Avenue on Whitehall's doorstep.

So large was the plant and its number of employees that Rockwell, formerly known as Curtiss-Wright and North American Aviation during the 1940s and '50s, built a park for the exclusive use of its employees.

Today, that park is Whitehall Community Park, 402 N. Hamilton Road.

Rockwell International gave the 80-acre park to the city after it closed its doors in 1988.

Last week, three former Rockwell International employees took an up-close look at Whitehall's most recent improvements to the park, including a new playground designed to accommodate children of all abilities.

Among them was Ellis Kauffman, 90, a Westerville resident who worked at the plant from 1952 until its closure.

A graduate of Purdue University, Kauffman worked in the plant's engineering department, designing instrument panels for a variety of aircraft.

"I remember coming to the park (and) it's good to see it's been taken care of," Kauffman said.

Billie McComas-Bower, 80, also a Westerville resident, has fond memories of the park and the plant as well.

"I stayed until they shut the doors. ... It was the only job I ever had (until then)," she said.

McComas-Bower started working at the plant as a summer intern in 1956, two weeks after she graduated from Bexley High School, and needed have a Social Security card issued to begin working there.

She said she is thrilled to see the improvements made to the park since Rockwell shut down.

"I was getting kind of depressed when I saw it before; it was in the need of some work," said McComas-Bower, who is coordinating an effort to raise $5,000 to build and install a marble bench etched with images of the military aircraft that were manufactured at the plant, such as the P-51 Mustang.

Similar to marble benches at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, and the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the bench would fit well, she said, alongside an existing marble memorial to the crew of the Challenger space shuttle.

The seven-member crew was killed when the shuttle exploded Jan. 28, 1986, minutes after liftoff.

Parts for the Challenger and other shuttles for NASA's program were manufactured at the plant, including a "beanie cap," a kind of hood vent, said John Scott, 72, who worked at the plant for the eight years prior to its closure.

"I'm impressed and pleased to see what's being done here," Scott said about the park.

Whitehall Parks and Recreation Director Shannon Sorrell led the three employees on the tour that included showcasing new, inclusive playground equipment on the park's upper level and improvements underway on its lower level.

The new playground equipment is accessible to disabled children, with a soft, poured base instead of mulch that can be a barrier for wheelchairs, Sorrell said.

It also includes full-body swings that are more accessible than traditional swings.

A paved walking path from the upper level is being widened to provide, for the first time, public vehicular access to the lower level.

There, vast sections of the park that were overgrown with honeysuckle and other kinds of shrubs have been removed, providing a clear line of sight to Big Walnut Creek.

A sled hill has been built and eventually, Sorrell said, a launching site will be constructed to allow kayaks and canoes into the creek.

Additional construction is underway for the new Community Park branch of the YMCA of Central Ohio, scheduled to open next year.

The playground upgrades at Whitehall Community Park are part of a $750,000 upgrade of playground equipment at all five parks in Whitehall's system, also including John Bishop, Lamby Lane, Norton Field and Robinwood parks, Sorrell said.

Debbie Hamilton lives near and frequently visits John Bishop Park with her great-granddaughter, Eva.

"I couldn't be happier with it. It's a great change," said Hamilton, pointing especially to the new surfaces in lieu of mulch.

New equipment is in place at all five parks, with ribbon-cutting ceremonies scheduled for June 24 at Lamby Lane, July 15 at Norton Field and Aug. 7 at Whitehall Community Park in conjunction with National Night Out.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo