DULUTH — In the past few years, high lake levels and repeated gales have battered Duluth's shoreline, leaving portions of the Lakewalk in shambles and tossing aside many of the memorial benches that overlooked it.
Cyndi Hanson said she and her family members were heartbroken to learn that a bench placed in memory of her late father, John Norland, was swept away from its nearly two-decades-old perch below the Fitger's Brewery Complex.
"We were all really sad. It was like losing a headstone," she said, noting that her father left behind no other marker, as he had been cremated, and her family spread his remains in a favorite place along the shore of his beloved Lake Superior.
Hanson said she was relieved to learn the city of Duluth plans to replace the bench and others, with the help of federal and state emergency relief funds. That work is still in progress.
Hundreds of memorial items can be found throughout the city, said Director of Parks and Recreation Jessica Peterson.
"What I think has been very evident to us is that because there are elements of the memorial program that are very longstanding in our park system, some of those elements are reaching the end of their life cycles," Peterson said. "They perhaps have been damaged — and in the case of some of the benches along the Lakewalk, beyond repair or replacement."
Peterson acknowledged that city staff have sometimes been at a loss as to how to manage the situation.
"We are struggling to manage the inventory that we have and to communicate consistently to families of loved ones who are recognized through these memorials. There have been some inconsistent expectations from those who have placed memorials in our parks historically that those memorials, which came with one financial contribution, were expected to last forever," she said.
Peterson remains hopeful that an ordinance before the Duluth City Council could provide clearer guidance in the future and equip the city with the tools it needs to better manage both memorial gifts and donor expectations.
For the time being, however, the city continues to turn away offers of memorial items, as it has for the past few years, with the exception of engraved paving stones for the Angel of Hope memorial, dedicated to families who have lost children. Even so, Peterson said the parks department usually receives at least one and sometimes multiple inquiries each week.
John Lawien said his family donated a Lakewalk bench in memory of his mother, Nancy Lawien, and said he hopes other families will have similar opportunities in the future. He explained that his mother took solace from the lake and spent hours on the Lakewalk during a several-year battle with ovarian cancer, the disease that ultimately took her life. A couple of years later, when her husband, Clarence, followed her in death, the family added his name to the bench, as well, with the words, "Together forever."
Lawien said he and his family have found visits to the bench meaningful and rewarding through the years.
"In a way, it feels like you're visiting your folks in a cemetery or something like that. The bench provides a really nice moment for us as a family to stand around it and say a prayer or two and just remember Mom and Dad," he said.
But only so many memorial benches can reasonably be placed on Duluth's popular Lakewalk, Peterson observed.
She said the ordinance "gives us the opportunity to strategically organize the program and to more proactively identify areas in our park system that may benefit from placed memorial items and other areas that may be, quote-unquote, 'full' or at capacity with the number of those items."
The proposed ordinance would give the city's parks and recreation manager authority to determine appropriate fees, the purchase and placement of memorial items, as well as the maintenance protocol that will be employed for the "useful life" of those items.
It also spells out that any memorial fees paid "are not intended and do not cover replacement costs." The city also reserves the right "to temporarily or permanently remove or relocate memorial elements when it determines they interfere with site safety, maintenance standards, parks planning, master planning or construction activities."
"I never thought we would own the bench," Lawien said. "To me it was more like a sponsorship."
But Lawien said it seems a bit unrealistic to expect the city to maintain or replace a bench in his parents' name, as needed in perpetuity for the family's up-front relatively modest investment, which he suspects was in the neighborhood of $2,500 nearly 20 years ago.
He suggested that the city ask families to periodically renew their financial commitment to keep a memorial in place.
"Then, they would have a revenue stream to more than pay for the upkeep," Lawien said.