2017-05-11 / Front Page

BUILDING MEMORIES ACROSS GENERATIONS

TOWN SET TO CELEBRATE REC CENTER’S 75TH BIRTHDAY
BY TIM RIEL


ABOVE: Servicemen stationed in Jamestown during World War II hoist the American flag in the front yard of the USO hall on Conanicus Avenue. It is now the recreation center. ABOVE: Servicemen stationed in Jamestown during World War II hoist the American flag in the front yard of the USO hall on Conanicus Avenue. It is now the recreation center. It was the early 1960s when Jane Bentley would walk from her family’s $5,600 house on Cliff Walk, down a seaside path along Conanicus Avenue behind Pitcher’s Drug Store, and into the boys’ club across from the ferry landing.

Today, that house is worth $2.7 million, the road is called High Street, the path behind Spinnakers Cafe is eroded, and the building has a gender-neutral name sprawled across its facade.

Despite all those differences, when Bentley walks through the recreation center’s doors Saturday at 41 Conanicus Ave., it’ll be a blast from the past.

To celebrate the building’s 75th anniversary, the Jamestown Historical Society and the recreation department are co-sponsoring a daylong salute. The celebration, which begins at 9 a.m. Saturday and culminates with a “Dance of the Decades” that evening, will feature yoga, pilates, basketball — and cookies.


RIGHT: Andy Wade, director of the recreation department, describes photos Tuesday that were hung in the center’s lobby in preparation for Saturday’s 75th anniversary party. RIGHT: Andy Wade, director of the recreation department, describes photos Tuesday that were hung in the center’s lobby in preparation for Saturday’s 75th anniversary party. Ode to military past

Bentley, a 20-year member of the historical society who moved to town in 1947, said the building is nearly identical from when it was built in 1942. On the site of the former Gardner House hotel, the USO hut was constructed for soldiers stationed at forts Getty, Wetherill and Burnside during World War II. The anniversary party, which commemorates the transition from federal military post to a town-owned rec center, is free and for all ages. Andy Wade, director of the recreation department, is especially extending an open invitation to military families in town. Because of the building’s tradition, Bentley agrees.

“It’s important to let military families know that it was built for 1,000 young men serving our country,” she said.

To recapture the USO, Wade has purchased two large jars, which will be filled with dozens of homemade cookies for visitors to enjoy. According to Bentley, townspeople during the war would bake treats for the soldiers who were shipped hundreds of miles from their families.

“These poor young men were away from home, so the women in town wanted to make it feel a little bit more like home to them,” she said. “They kept the doors open all the time and there was a cookie jar in the lobby. The women never let it go empty.”

Bentley said anybody who wants to bake cookies is more than welcome to drop them off Saturday morning. However, there is a backup plan.

“Half of the members of the historic society are baking cookies for me,” she said.

A wide range of activities

Although Wade and Bentley have been the lead organizers, it was another member of the historical society who brought the anniversary to their attention. Dennis Webster, also a member of the American Legion, was reading the March 2 history section of The Jamestown Press. According to the article, “More than 600 guests attended a ceremony for the new USO building on Conanicus Avenue, which included a concert by the 243rd Coast Artillery band.”

That’s when Webster approached Wade. “That’s really cool,” Wade thought to himself. “I should probably do something.”

Wade then solicited Bentley. “Before I could blink my eyes, she had everything planned,” he said.

According to Bentley, the activities planned are no accident. Growing up, she exercised at the rec center, which will be relived Saturday through Nancy Escher’s yoga class and pilates with Kristen Michalik. The classes are open to all ages and abilities.

It’s the basketball games, however, that hit closer to home. When Bentley took those strolls from her Cliff Walk home to the boys’ club, it was to shoot hoops.

“The only time my mother and father would let me out of the house on a school night was for basketball practice,” she said.

Those practices came in handy. By her senior year in high school, she was playing on three teams. Then she had two daughters of her own, which led to a 25-year coaching career on the hardwood.

At Saturday’s celebration, boys and girls on the Lawn School teams will play their alumni, who are now freshmen and sophomores in high school. Wade, along with his predecessor, Bill Piva, will referee the two games.

The dance, featuring DJs John Murphy and Jeremy Wigton, will feature music from every decade since the USO opened its doors. “I may or may not have ordered a disco ball,” Wade quipped.

A rare gem in the state

Although not officially part of the anniversary celebration, the annual dodgeball tournament between police officers and teens is scheduled for the previous night. From 6-9 p.m. Friday, everybody is invited to watch the competition. There will be raffles, music and food.

“A lot of people who haven’t been here for a while will be surprised,” Bentley said. “It’s really fun to be part of this energy coming back into the building.”

“There is only a handful of towns in Rhode Island that have anything half as good as this,” said Wade, who’s watched the participation numbers soar since he was hired 18 months ago. “I want people to understand that recreation isn’t just anything. It’s a valuable part of life and you need it to balance your existence. It’s not just a recreation center. It’s important. And I want it to be as important as it is.”

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