Sunshine set the scene Monday night for a ceremony honoring individuals who significantly contributed to the Town of Niagara.
During the ceremony, Town Board members dedicated the road leading into Veterans Memorial Community Park as "Joe Rotella Way." The town's pocket parks were also rededicated to former community members, and new park signs in their honor were unveiled.
Town of Niagara Supervisor Lee Wallace said he was "a little overwhelmed" by the response at the ceremony, which included many family members and friends of those being honored.
"These parks needed to be rededicated to honor these five individuals and the sixth person for the road (Rotella), because they gave tireless hours of their own time in many, many situations to this town and they should be remembered for years to come, for generations to come," Wallace said.
Beginning with Rotella, Wallace spoke of each honoree's accomplishments, as well as contributions and significance to the Town of Niagara.
Rotella was the first recreation director for the Town of Niagara and the first athletic director at the Niagara-Wheatfield Central School District.
"Joe was an inspiration to many of the youth in the Town of Niagara and a mentor to many of us who followed in his footsteps in the field of education," Wallace stated in a press release. "If Joe were here today he would be so proud of how far the Town of Niagara Recreation program has come over the last 60 plus years."
Rotella, who passed away in 2015, taught and coached at Military Road School before transitioning to the newly opened Niagara-Wheatfield Senior High School in 1958.
He helped develop the physical education and athletic programs for the school district. Rotella was also the founder of the Town of Niagara Parks' summer recreational athletic and art programs, laying the foundation for the successful programs in place today.
Rotella's nephew, Rick, spoke Monday about his uncle.
"I know that he would be very happy and very proud of this moment," Rotella said.
He explained his uncle grew up in the Great Depression and "never forgot what it meant to do without. And I think that he saw many of the children that he worked with, children that had to do without, and they touched his heart."
The late Rotella was also a World War II veteran. During the later years of the war, he saw soldiers that were captured as young as 15 years old, his nephew explained. "That broke his heart," Rotella said. "I think that's one of the reasons that he wanted to dedicate his life to children, to be an educator."
He said after the war his uncle returned to the Town of Niagara and his "biggest honor was to be called 'coach.' "
Other WWII veterans were honored during Monday night's ceremony, as well, including John Wojtowicz who the playground at Belden Center was named after. Wojtowicz's daughter, Paula, said her father was stationed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, during the D-Day invasion.
"My dad loved his country, his town, his neighbors and his family," she said.
Wallace said Wojtowicz was "a dedicated employee of the Town if Niagara for over 40 years and, under the direction of Joe Rotella, worked tirelessly improving the parks and playgrounds and ballfields that the town used through the '50s, '60s and '70s."
Wallace said Wojtowicz, on many occasions, volunteered his time to maintain ballfields in each of the town's parks "so that each and every Town of Niagara youngster had a ball field of their own in their own backyard."
The park at Veterans Heights was dedicated to John Sharpe and the playground was dedicated to William Ellerington, both of whom lost their lives at a young age while fighting for their country at war.
Longtime Town of Niagara resident Gary Guiliani was also honored Monday night, as the playground in Colonial Village is named after him.
Guiliani was a former Town of Niagara police chief and retired after 39 years of service. He was a fireman with Niagara Active Hose and Lewiston No. 2 Volunteer Fire Co.
He coached recreation baseball and became commissioner of the Town of Niagara Recreation Committee. He held this volunteer position for more than 20 years.
"Gary had passion for assisting the town's youth," Wallace said.
Guiliani was a member of the first graduating class of Niagara-Wheatfield High School and was "instrumental" during the planning of town's first rec center, Wallace explained.
"He just loved the kids here," said Guiliani's son, Steve.
He added, "We can't thank the town enough."
Guiliani's wife, Margaret, said, "My husband was so proud to be part of this town and he loved growing up in Belden Center."
The playground on John Street was named after former Niagara Fire Co. No. 1 Chief John Neilson Sr. He was the only firefighter in the Town of Niagara's history who lost his life while battling a fire.
Wallace explained Neilson was on his way home from work when he received a call to respond to a fire.
"He answered that call as a matter of routine duty and he died before the job was finished," Wallace said. "It was a hero's death to the fullest sense."
The playground at JoAnne Circle was rededicated to Rose Garcia, who was a six-term president of the Women's Democratic Charter Club. She was also a Democratic state committeewoman.
She served as a chairwoman for the town's Youth and Recreation Commission, as the town's historian, and in other position in the community before passing away in 1964 at the age of 50.
In a press release, Wallace stated, "The Town Board has made the revitalizing of all our town neighborhood parks as well as tonight's re-dedication ceremony a top priority. Taking the time to once again remember those whom these parks were originally named in honor of was long overdue."
He added, "I know for a fact that most of our satellite parks were not touched over 40 years, left basically the way they were, not upgraded, nothing was done for them."
Wallace said he felt it was time to "do the right thing and upgrade some of these satellite parks."
The town recently renovated its five satellite parks, and installed a new fence at Rose Garcia Park, replacing the original fence from the '60s.
Wallace said he plans to do the same thing at the John Nielsen Sr. Community Park next year.
Also, the town is "looking to put a dog park in one of the bigger locations down the road as well," Wallace said. "We will continue to do the right thing in regards to these parks."
Tribune Editor Lauren Zaepfel contributed to the report.
Family and loved ones unveil the park sign dedicated to John Nielsen Sr.