This year has been a notable one for Whitehall Community Park, with new playground equipment already in place and plans to remodel the activities building and revamp its lower level.

The park is likely to continue attracting more people next year when a new branch of the YMCA of Central Open opens.

Those who know of Whitehall's aviation history want to share it with those new visitors.

Westerville resident Billie Bower, a 32-year employee of Rockwell International and its forerunner, North American Aviation, is leading an effort to raise $5,000 for installation of an etched-marble bench depicting the images of the military aircraft that were assembled at North American Aviation in the 1950s.

Whitehall Community Park once was a private park for the employees of Rockwell International. The company gave it to the city after the sprawling plant at North Yearling Road and East Fifth Avenue in Columbus shut down in 1988.

"I want there to be something near where the planes were made (so former employees) don't have to go (to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton)," Bower said.

The marble bench would be placed near an existing memorial for the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, whose seven-member crew perished when the shuttle exploded shortly after liftoff Jan. 28, 1986.

Rockwell International manufactured parts for NASA's shuttle program.

The plant first operated as Curtiss-Wright, manufacturing aircraft during World War II. It became North American Aviation around 1950 and, later, Rockwell International.

Bower's effort to memorialize North American Aviation follows those of her former co-worker, Nolan Leatherman, 82, of Reynoldsburg.

Leatherman worked at North American Aviation and Rockwell International from 1957-91, the last three years at a Rockwell International plant in California.

Leatherman often visited Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and said he was dismayed when he saw monuments to other plane manufacturers but none mentioning North American Aviation.

"And a lot of the planes (on display at Wright-Patterson) were made (at North American Aviation)," Leatherman said.

After a particular day on which a fleet of B-25 planes, known as "Tokyo Raiders" -- the aircraft that flew in the Doolittle Raid of April 18, 1942, the first Allied airstrike on mainland Japan in World War II -- flew into Wright-Patterson, Leatherman lamented that North American Aviation, which manufactured B-25s, should be recognized.

Leatherman reached out to Ed Rusinek, editor of a national publication for North American Aviation retirees, and together solicited donations from employees to install a marble bench at Wright-Patterson.

Leatherman said donations were solicited only from North American Aviation retirees.

The bench at Wright-Patterson was dedicated in August 2013 and the fundraising effort was so successful that additional benches were made and installed at other military museums in the United States.

The Wright-Patterson bench depicts aircraft made for the Army Air Force.

Next year, a bench was installed at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, that one depicting Navy aircraft.

In October 2014, a bench was installed at the visitors center at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, illustrating the contributions of North American Aviation to NASA's rocket and shuttle programs.

In 2017, a bench was placed at the Air and Space Museum in San Diego, and another is destined for Edwards Air Force Base in California.

But there are no more proceeds to place a bench at Whitehall Community Park -- and that is where Bower comes into the picture.

"She's taken the lead on this and wants to see a bench (there)," Leatherman said.

Bower started working at North American Aviation 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.

"I stayed until they shut the doors ... It was the only job I ever had."

So far, Bower has collected almost $500 at retiree luncheons but is reaching out to Whitehall's recreation and parks department, she said, to help bolster her efforts.

Leatherman said unlike the previous benches installed at military bases with only retiree donations, that condition would not be applied to Bower's effort.

The bench would depict the aircraft built at North American Aviation, including the T-2, a military transport; the OV-10, an observation aircraft; the RA-5C, or Vigilante, a carrier-based supersonic bomber; and the F-8s, a fighter jet also known as the Sabre.

Contributions can be made to the North American Aviation Whitehall Memorial Bench, c/o Billie Bower, 6325 Pinehurst Pointe, Westerville 43082.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo