The dream of a couple of former Gunn Elementary School students to establish a memorial in honor of late custodian Gerald Dixon was realized with a ribbon cutting Wednesday at Kimball Park.
The event was attended by relatives of Dixon, residents of the North Broadway neighborhood, school officials, the C.B. Ambassadors and other community members.
“This park had been getting a little tired … Thanks to the alums — Dave Van Houten pushed a lot to get this shelter,” Mayor Matt Walsh said from a podium in the new Gerald C. Dixon Memorial Pavilion.
Walsh thanked donors, Larry Foster and Vincent Martorello — previous and current directors of Parks, Recreation & Public Property — and the Council Bluffs Friends of the Park for helping to make the park renovation happen.
“All of us have moments in our lives that we remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when a certain event occurred,” said Dave Van Houten, who spearheaded the effort to create a memorial, along with Gunn alumna Julie Foote. “(Some) of us, like my father, have their recollections of Dec. 7, 1941. Virtually all of us have our recollections of Sept. 11, 2001.
For Van Houten, one of those moments was 9:10 a.m. on Monday, May 15, 1967.
“Forever frozen in time are my memories of being in Mrs. Johnson’s fifth-grade music class when I felt and heard the sound of a concussive blast that reverberated through the room,” he said. “This was swiftly followed by the clanging sound of garbage cans being thrown about.”
The order was quickly given for everyone to evacuate the building, Van Houten said. On his way out, he noticed ceiling tiles above the basement stairs had been “punched out,” and the garbage cans normally in the doorway were scattered across the hallway.
“It didn’t dawn on me for years that the force of the blast blew the garbage cans up to the ceiling tiles, and the clanging sound was them falling back to the hallway floor,” he said.
As students waited by the swing sets, Dixon was carried down the steps on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance. He died the next morning at Mercy Hospital.
“He was like a grandfather to everybody,” remembered Barry Cleaveland, who finished at Gunn several years before the explosion.
In 2015, Van Houten, Julie Foote and Bambi Heckerman formed the Gerald C. Dixon Memorial Committee to create some kind of tribute to the janitor students had thought of as another grandpa.
“It began with an idea to install a memorial bench at Kimball Park and grew from there,” he said.
The committee teamed up with the North Broadway Neighborhood Association, headed by Dave Christiansen and John Marshall. The association was working toward replacing the playground equipment that had been lost when Gunn was purchased by a private developer, Van Houten said.
“The city of Council Bluffs recognized our efforts by agreeing to budget $200,000 to renovate a sizeable portion of the park,” he said.
Pottawattamie County Community Foundation set up a fund for the memorial committee so donations would be tax-deductible, then-CEO Jerry Mathiasen said. Committee members first addressed the Council Bluffs Community School District Board of Education about it in 2016, which prompted board member Jill Ogg-Gress to offer them their first donation.
The committee raised almost $40,000 for construction of the pavilion, Van Houten said. The park is now equipped with a playground, pickleball court, basketball half-court, climbing structure and the pavilion.
“A place like this builds social capital — which we can already see,” said the Rev. Lowell Hennigs, pastor at nearby Emanuel Lutheran Church. “It invests in future generations in memory of previous generations.”
The project was successful, thanks to the collaboration of multiple community groups and individuals. A large placque next to the pavilion lists about two dozen major donors.
Dixon’s grandson, Gerald Brock, one of many relatives who attended Wednesday’s dedication, expressed his appreciation to those involved.
“On behalf of all the relatives and friends, thank all of you — anyone who had a part in putting this together,” he said. “I can see my Grandpa Gerald looking down and smiling.”