Bridge naming surprises Geneva park worker Gabriel

Published: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

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GENEVA – At the ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony for the rebuilt Island Park North Bridge on Saturday, Larry Gabriel, the Geneva Park District superintendent of parks and properties, was doing business as usual – getting everything ready.

“I had gone down there with my two foremen, and we were setting up a canopy and getting the red ribbon staged and cleaning up,” Gabriel said. “A few guests were going to stop by, and Geneva Park District Executive Director Sheavoun Lambillotte started reading off the names of people included in the project. She got down to my name and … and I was waiting for her to move on.”

Gabriel said he recalled looking at Lambillotte and wondering, “Why do you keep talking about me?”

And then Lambillotte got to the part about the park commissioners deciding to name the bridge the Larry Gabriel Bridge in recognition of his supervision of this monumental project, as well as his 30-plus years of dedication to the Geneva Park District.

“I was stunned. Flabbergasted. Completely taken aback,” Gabriel said. “To my good fortune, I was not asked to step up and speak.”

Replacing the bridge that was built in 1931 was no small undertaking. The park district received a $729,110 Federal Transportation Enhancement Grant in 2010, which paid for 80 percent of the project, after structural testing confirmed it no longer was safe and needed to be replaced. 

The bridge is considered a vital link to more than 100 miles of the Fox River Trail network, as well as the juncture of the trail and the Illinois Prairie Path, officials said. 

The project officially began in 2004 – with engineering consultants studying the bridge, and the grant consultant applying for funds. The actual construction began in late spring 2012 and was completed by October, with Gabriel overseeing the project every step of the way from start to finish. 

Gabriel, 55, of Batavia, said he will have been an employee of the park district for 34 years on Sept. 3. He started in 1979 as a horticulturalist, then was appointed to foreman at Peck Farm Park and then in 2001 was promoted to superintendent when Don Forni retired.

Gabriel’s first responsibility at the park district was maintaining the gardens in front of the now-closed Mill Race Inn. 

“All the times I looked at that particular bridge, when I was planting flowers or doing other maintenance work – to think that I would someday be involved in rebuilding that entire structure,” Gabriel said. “Think of how far-fetched that sounds. And being down there on Saturday, and the bridge being named after me – that is as close to surreal as you could get.”

Gabriel noted that it was a good thing Geneva Park District names significant facilities after longtime devoted employees while they still are alive. Among those are the Don Forni Park, the Kay Lovett Park, Stan Esping Park and Stephen D. Persinger Recreation Center.

Lambillotte said Gabriel’s service of more than three decades is worthy of accolades. But he also was integral to the bridge project, she said, attending every city meeting, public meeting, construction meeting and all the meetings that followed to see the project through.

“We thought it was a good opportunity, not only for completing that one project, but also for his 30 years working for the park district,” Lambillotte said. “[We] could [not] have asked for an employee as devoted as Larry.” 

Gabriel still is getting used to the idea that the bridge will bear his name on two plaques, one on each end. 

“This is a monumental milestone in my career,” Gabriel said. “I had no idea this would happen. My family knew. I looked around and wondered, ‘Why are all these people here?’ A couple of my friends, a few of my family members, my wife. She had been part of this three- to four-month process of putting this all together behind the scenes.”

It must have been a tough secret to keep, he said.

“My wife said it was absolutely agonizing at times; she was so worried she would slip up,” Gabriel said. “The office staff did the same thing. But I was absolutely clueless.”

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