A friend and I were walking through Kapiolani Park the other day when we noticed a new park bench by the tennis courts memorializing a person named Robert W. Dunn.

We wondered how the park bench donation system works and if some people don’t get angry about well-meaning donors contributing more benches to attract the homeless. Or about turning Oahu parks into mini-cemeteries with park benches serving as memorials.

By making a few calls, I found out Robert W. Dunn, honored by the bench, was a telecommunications executive from Michigan who moved here as a retiree in 2004. His friend Linda Schumacher of Orlando, Florida, took up collection to honor Dunn with a bench after he died in 2015.

Schumacher, who I reached by phone in Florida, said Dunn liked walking in Kapiolani Park near where the memorial bench was installed.

Bongsoo Lee sitting on a bench memorializing Jens Magelssen in Kapiolani Park. Lee says stopping off at the bench is part of her morning routine. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

One of the memorial benches near Dunn’s bench honors the late Jens Magelssen, a Honolulu police officer who died at age 39 in August 2014, when a gun he was showing a friend accidentally discharged at a barbecue he was hosting for mainland visitors at his Wilhelmina Rise home.

I returned Saturday to take pictures of Magelssen’s bench to find Waikiki resident Bongsoo Lee sitting on it and enjoying the view of Diamond Head.

Lee says coming to the bench to relax is part of her early morning routine. She says she watched the bench being installed last year and since then has developed a fondness for visiting it.

“I am thinking of donating a bench myself as a way of paying back for my enjoyment,” she says. “I think it is a good idea.”

The Rules For Bench Memorials

Here’s how it works to donate a bench to honor a friend or relative. A donor first must meet with the city Parks and Recreation Department to discuss where they want the bench located and make sure they understand the cost — about $3,500.

Then the requested bench donation must be reviewed by the department and the mayor’s office before the request is sent to the City Council to be reviewed and voted on as a gift resolution by the Parks Committee and later by the full council.

The bench cost covers the installation of a 6- by 4-foot concrete pad, a standard 6-foot park bench made of recycled materials, an inscribed plaque and taxes.

Yuki Yoshimoto enjoys a break at a Kapiolani Park bench memorializing Robert W. Dunn. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

City law says to be honored with a memorial in a park a person or group must have a contributed significantly to the park, had a significant association with the park or be honored for service with the U.S. armed forces. But it seems as if the city is ignoring the specifics of the law and opening up the opportunity to pretty much anybody who applies and is approved by the council.

When you think about it, it’s a good deal. A $3,500 memorial park bench is considerably less expensive than buying a memorial marker for a loved one in a cemetery. And a bench brings comfort to the park-going public. Also, it’s a nice way to honor someone at a place that can be visited for family picnics and remembrance days.

It costs $10,000 to donate a memorial bench in New York’s Central Park, and that only gets you a plaque on one of the 9,000 existing benches, not a new one.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell likes the idea of citizens contributing needed equipment to Oahu’s parks. He thinks memorial benches are a way of curtailing vandalism.

He says, “When a vandal sees a memorial inscription saying dedicated in loving memory of someone, they will probably think twice before damaging the bench.”

I am not so sure about that. A memorial bench I was checking out on Magic Island had profane graffiti on it. Someone had tried to cover up the profanity with paint, but it was still visible.

Memorial benches have also been stolen. A bench memorializing Daniel C. Levey was ripped off its concrete foundation at Sandy Beach in March 2009. After Levey’s mother was interviewed by a newspaper reporter about the theft, the bench showed up a few days later in the parking lot at Waimanalo Beach Park.

Levey died at age 19 in a hiking accident in 2003.

Is It Too Easy?

City Parks spokesman Nathan Serota says 61 benches have been donated since 2004. The most popular locations are Magic Island, Kailua Beach Park, Sandy Beach and Kapiolani Beach Park.     

Alethea Rebman, president of the Kapiolani Park Preservation Society, is not a big fan of the way they city is running the bench program.

The society is a public charitable trust with a mission of keeping the park open and free from commercialism. 

Rebman says, “Memorial park benches are nice but they should memorialize people who have made a direct contribution to the park. There is only so much space in Kapiolani Park for the public to enjoy. The benches take up room.”

A man sleeps on a memorial park bench in Kapiolani Park. Denby Fawcett

Rebman says benches should be for people like the late Cynthia Marnie or Nancy Bannick, two early community advocates who fought to keep Kapiolani Park free from commerce and billboards.

Instead, she says, “It’s kind of a free-for-all now about who gets approved for a park bench memorial. It seems very random. The city needs to focus on where it is going with this program.”

She adds, “Everyone wants a piece of the park.”     

Rebman disagrees with Caldwell’s contention that memorial benches discourage vandalism.

She says, “I don’t think it has factual basis at all. We all know vandals go after easy targets. And they don’t show respect for anything. Churches and cemeteries have been vandalized.”

State Parks Are Different

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources does not allow donated memorial benches in state parks.

DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward writes in an email that “Benches, plaques and other memorials require additional staff responsibility for placement and maintenance. They also have the potential of imposing an individual’s personal history and/or emotions into the park landscape.”    

Imposing personal history became an issue before the City Council last year, when family members of the late Lita Cook asked city permission to install a life-sized bronze statue, a park bench and a plaque to honor Cook for perpetuating the tradition of pa’u riding.

Cook was known as the “queen of pa’u riders.” She and her husband founded the Hawaii Pa’u Riders, a group of riders who appeared in parades on the mainland and in Europe. Pa’u riders are the women in Hawaii’s major floral parades who ride attired in long, colorful gowns astride flower-decked horses.

At a council hearing last May, critics showed up to object to singling out Cook for perpetuating the pa’u riding tradition. They said that many others had worked hard in their lifetimes to perpetuate the Hawaiian floral parades and pa’u  riding culture.

At the hearing, B.J. Allen, the executive director of the state Council on Hawaiian Heritage, worried that allowing a memorial to Cook could a set off a flurry of proposals for memorials in Kapiolani Park to honor other community leaders.

The council decided to shelve the request for a bench and statue to honor Cook.

Parks spokesman Nathan Serota says there is no limit on the number of benches that can be donated to city parks.

When I asked about donated park benches eventually cluttering the parks and taking away valuable open space, Serota said, “The manageable amount of requests we have received has not currently warranted a concern for overcrowding; however, we will monitor the situation and adjust as necessary.  Bench requests are opened to anyone in the public but they must follow the guidelines outlined in our rules.”

Ann Kobayashi, chairwoman of the council’s Parks Committee, would like limits on how many memorial benches can be put in parks.

Kobayashi believes that the community users of each city park on Oahu should be allowed to determine what they want in their parks in terms of benches, picnic tables and other facilities.

“We have to start paying attention to making our parks are friendly for the communities who are using them,” she says. “With more and more people living in condos, how we utilize our open space in parks is becoming a critical concern.”

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