Veterans’ Day: A Family’s Annual Park Clean Up

 “Veterans know better than anyone else the price of freedom, for they’ve suffered the scars of war. We can offer them no better tribute than to protect what they have won for us.” – President Ronald Reagan, 1983 

On the chilly Sunday before Veteran’s Day 2019, armed with rakes, paper bags, and sacks filled with soil, the Wagner family and friends set out for their yearly clean-up of The Lieutenant Robert P. Grover Memorial Park, a tree-lined pocket park situated at JFK Blvd and Broadman Pkwy. Stephen Wagner has been visiting the park every year before Veterans’ Day for a day of service ever since he was told by a family member that there was a park in Jersey City named after a relative killed in WWII.

Stephen Wagner (left) with his mother-in-law, Diane Vantuno (right) and kids Kyle (left middle) and Calvin (right middle). Photo by Janine Ngai

“I did some detective work and found it. I visited in May 2016 and noticed the park needed some TLC,” said Stephen Wagner, great-nephew of Lt. Grover, after whom the park is named. “Our family is big into Scouting, and a part of that is the outdoor code, ‘leave no trace’. It is bothersome to see this or any public park in disrepair. This is a nice opportunity to make a positive difference in a way that brightens up the community, and help maintain and improve a park that has a special place in our family.”

And what better way to honor a veteran family member who made the ultimate sacrifice then to pay respects with a day of family, peace, and elbow grease to beautify a tribute to them and others who gave their lives for this country. The Lieutenant Robert P. Grover Memorial Park may look small from the outside, but it represents a larger story of brave men’s lives that were ended too soon and deserve a clean, quiet place for their memories to rest and be remembered.

Everything Jersey City writer Colleen Morrison raking leaves. Photo by Janine Ngai

A Bright Future Cut Too Short 

The titular Robert “Bobby” P. Grover was born in Jersey City on March 31, 1916 to Jewish parents, James (Jacob) and Pauline at 185 Bergen Avenue. James Grover ran his own printing business, The Grover Press, from a small shop at 85 Grant Avenue close to the corner of what is now Grant Ave. and Martin Luther King Drive. Grover graduated from Dickinson High School in 1934 where he enjoyed playing basketball and included the following quotation from Lord Byron’s poem, “The Eve of Waterloo,” under his yearbook photo: “When youth and pleasure meet, to chase the glowing hours with flying feet.”

At 24 years old, Grover had completed two years of college and was employed as a shoe salesman, working about 50 hours a week for $1.50 an hour in 1940. However, everything would change a year later following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the United States officially entering WWII with the Allied forces. Grover answered the call of duty to his country and voluntarily enlisted in the Air Corps as an Aviation Cadet just three weeks later on December 30, 1941.

Robert “Bobby” P. Grover (front left) on February 25th 1937. Photo Courtesy of Stephen Wagner

After completing his training as a bombardier and promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant in April 1943, Grover was assigned to the 337th squadron of the 96th Bomb Group and was the bombardier on board a B-17 aircraft flying over the North Sea towards the city of Emden, Germany on a mission to destroy the city’s submarine yards on May 21, 1943. Unfortunately, the plane never reached its destination as the aircraft was shot down about 75 miles north of the Dutch coastline and the entire 10-man crew was killed in action. Grover’s body washed ashore about a month later and was buried in the Netherlands, though his remains were eventually returned to New Jersey in 1949. To honor his sacrifice, he was awarded both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart medals. During World War II, there were approximately 550,000 American Jewish servicemen and women in the various branches of the United States armed services and 14,550 were honored with the Purple Heart medal, with Grover among them. A few years after his remains were returned to his family, The Lieutenant Robert P. Grover Memorial Park officially dedicated and renamed in his memory on May 11, 1952 with Grover’s brother Fred in attendance of the dedication ceremony.

Memorializing the Fallen

Located at the northwest corner of Broadman Parkway and John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Ward B, the approximately 100-square-foot Robert P. Grover Memorial Park is one of 21 park groups created by the Jersey City Parks Coalition to help develop a more sustainable community and provide places for recreation, shade, and relaxation to residents within the city. After swinging open the iron gate, visitors can follow a paved pathway that curves through, past benches and shady green space, and opens up in the middle to a fenced-in, strikingly white pillar raised up on three red stairs, surrounded by evergreen shrubbery, and topped with an American flag. A bronze plaque affixed to the white monument reads: “This park dedicated to the memory of Lt. Robert P. Grover, the first of his faith from this city who gave his life in World War II fighting to preserve the American Way of Life and in honor of all others in this community who served their country. Sponsored by Lt. Robert P. Grover Post 377, Jewish War Veterans of the United States.”

Lt. Robert P. Grover Memorial. Photo by Janine Ngai

“The park is a wonderful remembrance for our family, and certainly a nice reminder for the community as to the sacrifices that were made to ensure our freedoms here in the USA,” said Wagner. “For me, it has helped me appreciate more of my family’s military history and the sacrifice that was made for our country. Looking back at pictures of Bobby, looking at his high school yearbook details, it makes me wish to have known him and sad that his life was cut short in its prime.”

The park is in part maintained by the Redstone Townhomes Neighborhood Association, founded in 2010 by a group of volunteer residents from nearby streets who are passionate about bringing a better quality of life to JC residents in their community. In 2014, the Association planted cherry trees and installed plaques in the park for other Jersey City servicemen and police detectives killed in the line of duty to be honored alongside Lt. Grover. These residents are:

  • Spc. Marlon P. Jackson, killed in Iraq on November 11, 2003
  • Police Detective Marc A. DiNardo, killed in the line of duty protecting the people of Jersey City on July 21, 2009
  • Spc. Rafael A. Nieves, Jr., killed in Afghanistan on July 10, 2011
  • Leroy Deronde III, killed in Afghanistan on May 27, 2012
  • Police Detective Melvin V. Santiago, killed in the line of duty protecting the people of Jersey City on July 13, 2014

“If we fail to remember the people and their sacrifice, then society will perhaps enter into armed conflicts without considering the true consequences,” said Wagner on the importance of parks like this one honoring his great-uncle. “We must continue to remember the fallen soldiers as well as police. I hope that the park will continue to inspire Jersey City residents to service and remain a place of reflection and peace to all who visit.”

Calvin Wagner laying soil. Photo by Janine Ngai

This includes Stephen Wagner’s two sons, who spent the day raking and stuffing leaves into giant brown bags in the park, but they didn’t seem to mind breaking a little sweat in the name of a good cause. As Scouts, they’re used to giving their time for the greater good, and this clean-up just happens to be a little more personal than their usual projects.

“It feels pretty cool to actually have something in nature that you can physically enjoy that represents this [relative],” said Kyle, age 11, who added extra meaning to the day with an excellent rendition of Taps played on his trumpet as the park slowly but surely came together. “It preserves their history and story and makes them known. They did something so great for our country that they should have something that people can recognize them for what they did for us.”

Kyle Wagner playing Taps at Lt. Robert P. Grover Memorial Park. Photo by Janine Ngai

His older brother, Calvin, the family history buff who could hold his own in a head-to-head with any WWII historian in a battle of facts, also felt the significance of the day beyond laying new soil and picking up trash stuck between the fence posts.

“I find memorials very important. Keep them clean, don’t defile them. If you’re going to a memorial, don’t throw your trash on the ground if there’s trash cans located in the park,” said Calvin, age 14. “You’re defiling a place meant to remember people who helped keep this country safe, and that’s just being disrespectful. Don’t do that!”

Veteran Resources and Volunteer Opportunities in Jersey City

If you’re interested in helping to beautify Lt. Grover’s or your neighborhood park, learn more about the Jersey City Park Coalition’s mission, upcoming events, and initiatives, like City of Trees.

For veterans, contact the Office of Veteran Affairs or VFW Post 2294 located on 98 Oak St., for access to resources, information, and events for a chance to meet and connect with fellow veterans in Jersey City.

VFW Post 2294 also has a partnership with #HealthierJC for their Feed the Vets program that provides hot meals and comradery to Jersey City vets and families.

For more volunteer opportunities, including events and groups, regularly check our Local Non-Profits + Charities page for ways you can get involved in your community.