Gary Nilsson always wanted a flagpole at Pioneer Pavilion in Mill Creek MetroPark.
The Air Force veteran and former Austintown firefighter spent four years as the pavilion’s caretaker before his death from bladder cancer May 25, 2010. He was 65.
“He always said, ‘We need a flag,’ never expecting to get it this way,” said his wife, Ruth Nilsson.
After Gary’s death, Ruth and their daughters, Kristin and Amy Nilsson, asked mourners to send donations to The Hope Center for Cancer Care, but still some sent donations to the family. Ruth decided to use that money for a flag at Pioneer Pavilion.
“It’s a beautiful thing for people who come to the pavilion,” Ruth said.
The flagpole stands at the top of the small hill near the pavilion parking lot. Ruth had lights installed at the pole’s base, so the flag could fly all the time.
“Dad loved talking to people; he loved working when the pavilion was in use, even on Thanksgiving,” Amy said.
The park long has held a special place for the family. Ruth, who grew up on the city’s West Side, played there, and her daughters grew up there, too, playing volleyball. Now Amy’s children are taking advantage of the park, entering sand- sculpting competitions and competing in sports.
“We love the park,” Amy said.
Ruth said that even as a child, she knew she wanted to work for the park someday, and after her retirement from Pepsi Cola, she got her chance. She was hired six years ago as a part-time tour guide at Lanterman’s Mill.
A few years later, Gary, who had retired from General Electric years before, became the Pioneer Pavilion caretaker.
“It was the last thing he did,” Amy said.
Ruth and Amy said Gary loved working at the park.
“He wanted to go back to work in April , but the doctor told him not to,” Ruth said. “We knew what was happening.”
After his death, Ruth approached the park with her idea of a memorial flagpole and promised to provide all of the project funding with the stipulation it be completed by May 25, 2011.
It was finished May 23, and the family had a dedication ceremony May 25.
“We kept it happy. It was a no-tear zone,” Ruth said, who was married to Gary for 42 1/2 years.
Glancing at the flag flying above her, Ruth smiled.
“I just strongly believed in doing this,” she said.