Whitehall Community Park memorial bench salutes North American Aviation, Rockwell International workers

Gary Seman Jr.
ThisWeek group
David Roscoe of Columbus, a 51-year employee at North American Aviation and Rockwell International, and his wife, Lavonne, look at the memorial bench dedicated May 15 to the Columbus airplane manufacturing plant, its employees and their families. The granite bench in Whitehall Community Park is festooned with images of historic aircraft built there. About 100 people gathered at the park for the dedication.

A new memorial in Whitehall Community Park stands as a rock-solid testament to North American Aviation and Rockwell International employees and their families.

The granite park bench, festooned with images of historic aircraft built at the Columbus division of North American Aviation and, later, North American Rockwell and Rockwell International, was dedicated May 15 at Whitehall Community Park.

The memorial bench dedicated to North American Aviation and Rockwell International and the plant's employees and their families in Whitehall Community Park bears the images of historic aircraft built in Columbus.

About 100 people gathered at the park at 402 N. Hamilton Road to reminisce and honor the contributions the aviation companies made to the industry and central Ohio.

The park, for example, once was known as North American Recreation Park, built by the aviation company for its employees and funded in part by revenue collected in the facility’s vending machines.

Billie Bower, 82, and Nolan Leatherman, 85, raised the $5,000 necessary for the memorial bench, which was quite an undertaking, considering they had very little contact or ways of communicating with the remaining retired employees, their families or friends, Bower said.

“It is customized for Whitehall, but it’s the only one in the nation with planes on it,” Bower said. “It’s an original.”

Leatherman got the idea for a bench when he visited the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton.

He noted there was nothing commemorating the work of North American Aviation, which later became North American Rockwell. It was known simply as Rockwell International before it was acquired by the Boeing Co., which closed the local plant in 1988.

Leatherman was successful in getting Wright-Patterson to install a memorial bench in 2013 – with other aerospace museums across the country to follow – but there still was a deficiency in Whitehall, Bower said.

The park, once owned by the aviation company’s employees, eventually became an eyesore. Its buildings and shelter houses were dilapidated and grass was overgrown.

Bower, a 32-year employee of North American and Rockwell, said she was crestfallen by the condition of the park when she met Shannon Sorrell, director of the Whitehall Parks and Recreation Department.

Sorrell insisted things would improve, Bower said.

Whitehall Parks and Recreation Department director Shannon Sorrell holds a microphone for Nolan Leatherman of Reynoldsburg as he speaks to about 100 people who attended a May 15 dedication of a memorial bench for the North American Aviation and Rockwell International manufacturing plant, its employees and their families. The granite bench in Whitehall Community Park is festooned with images of historic aircraft built in central Ohio.

The landowners sold the park, which technically is in Columbus, to the city of Whitehall for $1.

“We hooked up, and I believed (Sorrell) and it came through,” Bower said. “The park became a thing of beauty.”

Bower said as many as 18,000 people were employed by North American Aviation on East Fifth Avenue in Columbus, and many lived in Whitehall.

Bower, then Billie McComas, started at North American Aviation in 1956 as a typist and retired as a personal assistant. She met her husband, Robert Bower, at a company party. He retired as a major in the Ohio Army National Guard.

Many people who worked at North American Aviation on East Fifth Avenue in Columbus were Whitehall residents, according to 32-year employee Billie Bower.

“I think it’s great just to honor the history and the families who worked for North American Aviation and Rockwell and their generous gift to Whitehall and its residents and has allowed us to preserve a natural asset for generations to come," she said.

Sorrell agreed that the park is a significant community asset.

Small additions are being considered for the 80-acre park in the eastern portion of the Whitehall community.

The greenspace features paved walking trails, a 7-acre wildflower meadow, woodland trails, a 9-hole disc golf course, four play areas and canoe and creek launches for Big Walnut Creek.

The commemorative bench, Sorrell said, "was important to them for many reasons.”

“This is the only (memorial) bench in central Ohio,” she said.

gseman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekGary