(Reprinted from the Richmond Times-Dispatch - July 20, 1998))
Playground Honors Deacon’s Memory

     The smell of fresh mulch and the sound of children playing filled the air yesterday afternoon at Graceland Baptist Church, where parishioners dedicated a new playground in memory of a former deacon.
     Virgil Gregory, who died in August, would have turned 65 today. More than 100 people stayed after the 11 a.m. service to honor him at a short ceremony. Gregory’s son, John, thanked the many donors and volunteers who made the playground possible.
     As he listed a few names, one impatient youngster interrupted. “When are we going to cut the ribbon?” the boy asked, drawing laughs from most of the crowd.
     Just as Pastor Robert Beasley started to make a few remarks, one of the helium balloons tied to the equipment popped. Several people said it signaled Virgil Gregory’s presence.
     Following a dedication prayer, Gregory’s 3-year-old grandson, Sean, cut the ribbon. About 20 kids dashed in and began testing all the things to do among the wooden towers, including 11 swings, four slides, a pipe, ropes, a merry-go-round, a sliding pole, monkey bars, and rings.
     “This is kind of bittersweet,” said Lucille Gregory, Virgil Gregory’s widow, as she watched the children swarm the playground.
      Her husband loved children, Mrs. Gregory said. When he was a deacon, he went out to visit local families and tried to get them to attend church. Kids instantly took a liking to his kind, loving personality, she said.
     “This started off as being something I wanted to do in my husband’s memory,” Gregory said.
     After someone suggested building a playground, she decided to put $1,000 toward the project. After telling her family and friends, many offered money and volunteered to help. What was going to be a simple one-or two-piece playground turned into a $5,000 project supported by many in the community.
     “I thought I’d just buy a swing set, but it’s turned out to be a real neat thing,” Gregory said. Several local businesses made donations or offered discounts: Central Fidelity Bank, Lowes, Anderson’s Lumber, Flat Rock Hardware, Kenneth Moore Hauling and Smith & Chumney Sawmill. The union John Gregory belongs to, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 666, donated $1,000.
     The church wanted to name the playground “Tootsie Roll Park” after the candy Virgil Gregory always carried around to give kids, but the candy company said no. Chicago-based Tootsie Roll Industries did, however, donate a bag of candy for the dedication, which the kids eagerly consumed. The sign identifying the park says “Graceland Playground” and includes Tootsie Rolls spilling out of a bag labeled “Greg’s Treat.”
     After about 20 minutes of playground test work, all the kids headed inside for cookies and punch. The stifling midday heat had taken its toll, and the playground was left silent, waiting for the next burst of noisy, energy-filled children.
     John Gregory said it would be nice for families in the area to be able to spend time together here. The playground will be open to everyone, he said.
     “This is for the community,” he said. “We’re more than happy for anyone to come, and hopefully we’ll get some of them to come to church as well.”
     He described his father as an average guy with a great love of people and a way with kids. “I know Dad would’ve loved this,” he said.
     Carolyn Watts, a church member who helped coordinate volunteers, said the playground is the perfect tribute to Virgil Gregory, whose grave is within sight.
     “There’s nothing he would have liked better than to have something special for the children,” she said.
     Beasley, the pastor, said construction of the playground got some young families more involved in the church and drew others to attend services for the first time.
     “I think it’s going to help them stay involved with the work of the church,” he said. “It’s just a good place for the little children around here to come.

(Reprinted by permission of family)