BY CAROLINE OURSO
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
PROSPECT PARK — Nature enthusiasts gathered at Bartel Pritchard Square on Saturday, Oct. 5 to celebrate Prospect Park and honor special supporters at the Prospect Park Alliance’s 2019 gala and fundraiser.
Local industry leaders mingled with politicians and philanthropists in the name of preserving, sustaining and improving Brooklyn’s forested wonderland.
The Alliance chose to honor three guests for their dedication to preserving and promoting the 585-acre park via two distinct avenues.
Lorraine and Gordon DiPaolo jointly received the Wilbur A. Levin Award for their generous donations to the park over the past several years.
Iris Weinshall, board chair of the alliance and COO of the New York Public Library, introduced the DiPaolos, noting that they have given $50,000 to the alliance for the past five years.
“The DiPaolos simply want to inspire as many people as possible to get involved with the park and our work,” said Weinshall, who is married to Sen. Chuck Schumer.
“Their generosity has encouraged thousands of park supporters to give back to the park,” Weinshall concluded. “Thank you for your dedication to Brooklyn’s backyard.”
The DiPaolos gave separate short acceptance speeches, focusing on the progress made in the park and neighborhood since the couple moved to the area in 1969.
“The park has enjoyed a renaissance, a rebirth,” said Gordon after Lorraine noted that the park was nearly unapproachable in the ‘70s due to neglect and crime. “It’s safe and gorgeous, a place to escape the trials and tribulations of daily living.”
The award given to the DiPaolos is named after Bill Levin, a founding member of the Prospect Park Alliance’s board of directors who died in 2005. His widow, Phyllis Lee Levin, a former reporter and historian, watched the ceremony from the center dining table seated between Schumer and her son, Peter.
Pete Hamill, the renowned journalist and Brooklyn native who has served as editor of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News, received the James S. T. Stranahan Award, reflecting his lifelong connection to the park and borough.
“Pete helped make Brooklyn what it is today,” said Schumer, recounting Hamill’s prolific career as a journalist, editor and author.
Schumer lauded Hamill for his journalistic standards by bringing a small taste of partisanship into an otherwise apolitical affair.
“We need journalists like Pete now more than ever,” said Schumer. “A free and robust fourth estate is how we discern democracy from autocracy and guard against the slide from one to the other.
“This is a time when many of us who have had complete faith in the wellspring of democracy that’s graced our country genuinely worry, ‘Will it survive?’” he continued.
“As long as Pete Hamill and his intellectual descendants are on the case, I believe our democracy will not just survive, but prevail.”
Hamill, who grew up mere blocks from the park and has continued his close residency throughout most of his life, shared both touching and harrowing memories upon receiving his award, guiding the audience through a brief but personal history of the park.
His childhood consisted of regular visits to the park, first with his mother and then with friends as he grew up, he recalled.
“Once you entered it and moved across some slopes, the city itself disappeared,” Hamill reminisced, “unlike in Central Park, where a visitor could never escape the rigid sky clawing at Manhattan buildings.”
But living near the park was not always pleasant, and after a shot was fired through his window while he was home with his two daughters, he moved away for their safety.
“The park is surely at its historic zenith right now,” said Hamill fondly, and the park’s Administrator Sue Donoghue seemed to agree.
“We all know Brooklyn is booming, with more people coming to the borough and coming to the park than ever before,” said Donoghue.
But this boom in visitors begs for a renewal of donations to keep the park thriving, and Donoghue called on her guests to continue their giving streak.
“It is essential that we keep this park accessible to both new Brooklynites as well as communities who have lived here for generations,” Donoghue said.
C.K. Swett helped move the funding along as a charismatic auctioneer.
“I submit to you that behind voting, there is no greater expression of the democratic ideal than a public park,” Swett belted into the microphone while standing on top of a chair.
“We have to have these parks and make these parks safe and clean, welcoming for all,” he continued. “Throw those doors wide open. That’s what the alliance does; it opens the doors wide for everyone to celebrate that democratic ideal.”
And indeed the doors did swing. Guest after guest pledged thousands of dollars to the alliance at Swett’s behest, and by the end of the night, he had raised $50,000 for the park.
Nearly every speaker throughout the night referred to the park as a refuge or an oasis, likening it to a spot of heaven on Earth.
But Hamill, the writer, eloquently stated the obvious unconventionally, declaring, “If there’s no Prospect Park in heaven, I ain’t going.”