WEST ORANGE, NJ — When 9-year-old Emily Rintzler’s Gregory Elementary School third-grade class took a field trip to the West Orange Town Hall, Mayor Robert Parisi told the students to let him know if there was anything they thought he should do in town. Emily decided to take him up on his offer.
Emily and her family were walking around their neighborhood on Collamore Terrace when she noticed a grassy area at the intersection of Collamore Terrace and Collamore Circle and thought it should become a park. Months later on May 5, residents of the neighborhood and town officials gathered on the street to dedicate Mayor James Sheeran Park. The lawn is now outfitted with benches under the large cherry blossom tree, where residents can relax with a book from the nearby lending library established at the same time.
In a letter to Parisi, Emily asked that the space be turned into a park. She also decided it should be named for Sheeran, who served as mayor of West Orange from 1958 to 1966 and whose childhood home was on Collamore Terrace.
“She thought she had a good idea, she thought this could be a neighborhood park,” Parisi said at the event on May 5. “She was right. I talked to her about Mayor Sheeran, who lived on Collamore Terrace, and she thought it was a good idea to name the park after him. She also wanted to have a lending library here, and we set out to make it happen.”
Parisi presented Emily with the West Orange Pride Award to recognize her commitment to neighborhood residents.
In addition to the new lending library at the park, two benches were dedicated to four people from West Orange, all of whom lived or currently live in the Collamore Terrace area. West Orange Township Council President Susan McCartney, herself a resident of the street, presented 90-year-old Max Manshel with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his service to the town. Manshel has served as deputy mayor, West Orange Democratic County Committee district leader, former West Orange Planning Board attorney and chairman of the West Orange Environmental Commission.
Another plaque in the park dedicates a bench to Jonathan Selikoff, a resident of the Gregory neighborhood who died of ALS in November 2017. Selikoff’s mother Isabelle, wife Lauren and 11-year-old son Sam dedicated one of the benches to him, with lyrics to the Bruce Springsteen song “Growin’ Up” adorning it.
Stephanie Thompson dedicated a bench to her son, Avery, a 17-year-old West Orange resident who died of leukemia in 2014.
“He had no fear,” she said at the dedication. “His motto was ‘dream big.’ He sang, rapped and performed all while battling late-stage cancer. He lived more in his 17 years than other people do in their entire life.”
Mackenzie Fitschen’s name is on the fourth plaque dedicated at the park. Fitschen battled cancer for eight months before she died in 2016 at age 16, and according to her brother, Garrett, she was an avid reader.
“You couldn’t find someone who loved reading more,” Garrett Fitschen said at the event, adding that his sister would often walk around their house with a book, not noticing if she was about to walk into a wall or trip over something. The Fitschen family donated 16 books to the park’s library, one for each year of Mackenzie’s life.
“She was an amazing kid, it was an honor for us to get the call” to dedicate the bench, Dawn Fitschen, Mackenzie’s mother, told the West Orange Chronicle in an interview at the event. “She was such an avid reader, so this was perfect. And she used to come up here and hang out all the time.”
West Orange historian Joe Fagan told the crowd about Mayor James Sheeran, who served in World War II before becoming mayor, and was a classmate of Gov. Brendan Byrne’s at West Orange High School. Fagan read a poem he titled “Crickets of the Hedge Row” to honor Sheeran’s military service before Sheeran’s daughters spoke at the dedication.
“He was a person that was passionate about this town,” Jaime Sheeran Maniatis said before sharing memories of her father’s campaign for mayor in the 1950s. “He was a troublemaker as a kid, so it’s a miracle that he became mayor. I remember visiting this neighborhood so many times and it’s been a great experience to hear these stories.”
“He never ever gave up on his dreams,” Kim Sheeran Zoller, who flew in from Colorado for the dedication, said at the event. “Don’t underestimate the power of one human being.”
And Maniatis and Zoller made sure to single out Emily, without whom the park named after their father would not even exist.
“It’s really touching, and it’s surprising,” Cyndy Rintzler, Emily’s mother, said about the crowd assembled on Collamore Terrace for the park dedication in an interview with the Chronicle at the event. “We have a great community. This is touching, it’s a clear picture of why we love this neighborhood so much.”
“I didn’t like that it was just a grassy area,” Emily Rintzler said of her idea for Mayor James Sheeran Park in an interview with the Chronicle at the dedication. “I was happy everybody wanted to come see it.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic