NEWPORT — Lining the bayfront are a row of benches in various conditions: some painted, some missing a board, some with cracked wood, others with fresh sealant — all were purchased to honor someone dear. Two Newport women are determined to make sure these benches are here to stay.
Newport’s memorial benches, primarily found near Port Dock 5, are purchased from the city by individuals in memoriam. However, after they are installed by the city, the responsibility of upkeep lies with the owner — something that not everyone remembers or is aware of, as Judy Bateman and Lavonne Bussey explained.
“They do tell you that you are responsible for keeping it up,” said Bateman, “that the city doesn’t keep it up, and that they have the option to take it (out) if it gets to the point … that it’s unsafe.”
Of the nearly 100 benches around the city, Bateman and Bussey say that only around 20 are in good condition. The two worry about the fate of these benches, which are not only a boon to walkersby but a part of Newport’s history.
“We want to get the benches back to shape again,” said Bussey. “They’re all for the people that they ordered them for because they wanted some kind of a memorial … But they’ve forgotten, I guess, or they figure that they’re going to stay like they were when they first put them down there.”
On the plaques along the bayfront, names of ships are almost as prevalent as names of people; generations of families are documented in some places, professions are honored — each bench tells its own story. Two benches sport a Thin Blue Line paint job, in tribute to the officers honored on the nameplate.
Bateman and Bussey each have their own benches for their husbands, and have seen firsthand how much visitors and locals alike use and love the benches. Bussey, who recently repainted her bench for the second time, is a police volunteer who walks the bayfront regularly.
Last summer Bussey talked with a couple who visits Newport each year. They always make time to sit on their favorite bench, which honors Sam Scott.
“I knew him real well, so I could talk to them about him, about his life,” said Bussey. “They were real happy to know who the person was on the bench … and it made them feel more connected to it.”
The couple offered to paint the bench next time they visit, with the owners’ permission. But it’s not clear how others will be kept up.
Because the benches are owned by others, Bussey and Bateman couldn’t repair all the benches themselves, even if they were able to afford and take on such a project. Instead they are turning their efforts to tracking down individual owners.
While the women have made progress in tracking down some owners through their knowledge of the community and city paperwork, there are a number of benches they have yet to match with owners. Some of the seats were purchased more than 20 years ago; some families have moved out of the area — or their lineage didn’t continue on, or daughters have changed names after marrying. All of these factors make it difficult to locate the people who have the right and responsibility to repair their benches.
Those who own a bench and need assistance having it repaired, or who would like to offer individual repair services — or volunteer a group to do repairs— can reach Bateman at 541-265-5584 and Bussey at 541-574-0132.