Preserves and parks offering memorial trees and benches — for a price

Nearly every day in the last years of his life, Casimir Paugys drove to Thatcher Woods Forest Preserve in River Forest, sat in his car, read the paper and enjoyed the placid pond and nature center there.

He often remarked on his visits when talking to his daughter. He enjoyed the variety of bird species he spotted in the woods, like kingfishers and red-headed woodpeckers. One day he saw a doe nursing its fawn.

So when Paugys died at age 68 last year, his three children knew where they wanted to make a memorial in his honor. On Father's Day this year, they dedicated a bench in his memory at his favorite forest preserve, taking advantage of a new program established by the Forest Preserve Foundation.

"It was perfect for our family, because our dad had always been an outdoorsman and into nature and wildlife," said his daughter, Jill Paugys. "We knew that place brought him a lot of happiness."

The not-for-profit Forest Preserve Foundation was started last year to promote the Cook County Forest Preserve District. Its dedication program is similar to others in the area, though prices range depending on the location and the entity hosting the memorials. The Forest Preserve Foundation offers a dedicated bench with a memorial plaque for $3,000 and a dedicated tree, with a plaque at forest preserve headquarters, for $500 to $850.

The foundation has gotten a variety of inquiries from people interested in remembering loved ones, Executive Director Shelley Davis said.

One family wanted to memorialize a stillborn twin. Another wanted to remember a teen who had taken his life but who once loved to ride the trails on his bike. Another wants to establish a fund to honor a grammar school teacher who took students to the Little Red Schoolhouse in Palos Hills.

"I've heard some tragic stories and lots of joyful stories," Davis said. "It's a great way of remembering someone they cherished at a special place that the family can continue to visit."

A donor may request a site at a specific preserve, but the exact location must be agreed upon with preserve officials depending on how it fits into the surroundings.

Similar programs have existed for years at various public facilities. The not-for-profit Chicago Parks Foundation now runs the dedication program for the Chicago Park District. The group has planted 27 trees so far this year, but plan to promote the program more widely, Executive Director Willa Lang said.

A commemorative bench runs $10,000 in Lincoln Park, $7,500 in Promontory Point, and $5,000 in most other parks, Lang said. The tax-deductible donations go to help promote foundation programs like basketball tournaments, new playgrounds, and Night Out in the Parks, with hundreds of free movies, plays and other events across the city.

One family from Chicago's Hyde Park held a reception Sunday to dedicate a bench in memory of their parents at Promontory Point, a peninsula that provides sweeping views of the South Side lakefront and the skyline.

Eileen and Edward Wasserman loved the Point when they met at the University of Chicago and settled in neighboring Kenwood. They often took their four daughters to picnic at the Point and at the nearby beach and for folk dancing in the fieldhouse there.

Eileen Wasserman continued to go the Point after her husband died in 2004. Even after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it was the last place she visited outdoors, in a wheelchair, before her death in December.

"The Point was a real special place and still is," their daughter Suzanne Wasserman said. "We wanted something memorable and a worthy thing to do in their memory."

Perhaps the best-known memorial program in the area is at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.

After 40-some years of tributes, the garden has almost 400 dedicated benches and more than 1,300 trees, with tributes also available for a wide range of items, from bonsai trees to garden bulbs.

Donations for tributes can be a significant revenue source. The Chicago Botanic Garden raised about $300,000 last year. A dedication for an existing tree costs $2,000 or $3,000, while a garden bench runs $5,000 for 15 years or $25,000 in perpetuity.

Tributes are a growing source of fundraising revenue for governmental and nonprofit institutions, including hospitals, religious organizations and universities, said Jim Boudreau, the botanic garden's vice president of marketing and development.

"It's incredibly important to us," he said. "There's a strong emotional bond. It's a place they can return to and feel good about."

Some donations come from mourners at funerals who are asked to make donations in lieu of flowers, said the garden's tribute gift coordinator, Gloria Sagen.

"There's a lot of heartache associated with that," Sagen said. "It's not just a tree, it's what that tree represents to them, and it can be very emotional."

Some donors come for happier occasions.

One couple has a particularly striking story to tell about their memorial, Sagen said.

Anjani and Saurab Bhargava met through friends at a wine festival at the botanic garden in 2008. When a storm rolled in, they began walking back to the visitor center, and Saurab began singing Bollywood musical songs to Anjani. They suddenly heard a deafening crack and fell to the ground, looking up to see a spark and smoke from a nearby gum tree, and realized it had been struck by lightning.

A year later, after they continued to date, they returned to the same spot and Saurab got down on one knee to propose, just as a light rain began to fall. Anjani said yes, and their friends later dedicated the tree to them as a wedding gift. Now they bring their daughter to visit the tree that brought them together.

Twitter @RobertMcCoppin

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