Sinnissippi Music Shell to be renamed in honor of late alderman, Rockford Park District employee

ROCKFORD — Flags outside City Hall are being flown at half-staff this week in honor of Alderman John Beck, who died Sunday at age 57.


About 40 glowing lanterns were placed outside the building, lining the corner of East State and North Second streets.


Inside the building the City Council chambers were mostly empty on Monday, a byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic and orders to stay at home to slow the spread of the disease. City Council members are conducting their business virtually and leaving the chambers vacant.


But Beck’s chair wasn’t empty. Instead, it was filled with memorabilia from his time working with RAMP, the Rockford Park District and the City Council.


Monday’s City Council meeting had only a few minutes of actual business before aldermen and Mayor Tom McNamara took turns celebrating Beck’s life, describing him as a pragmatic public servant who approached his job and life with humor and grace.


"John was a servant leader who was involved for all the right reasons and none of the wrong ones," Alderman Bill Rose said.


Rose said he hoped one day to be able to take his family to a park named after Beck, who spent 13 years as the arts, events and recreation project manager for the Rockford Park District.


Less than 24 hours later, such a recommendation was put forward.


Rockford Park District Executive Director Jay Sandine put forward a recommendation Tuesday at the district’s regular meeting that the Sinnissippi Music Shell be renamed the John Beck Community Band Shell. Commissioners will need to give official approval April 28, but they voiced their support on Tuesday.


Beck loved the Music in the Park series at the band shell and music of all kinds, Sandine said. Beck had played the trombone in his high school band before the diving accident that left him paralyzed. He instead sang in the choir when he could no longer play, according to a 1999 article in the Register Star.


Sandine said the Music in the Park series at the band shell brings together people of all ages, all backgrounds and all abilities together for the love of music in unity. That showing of diversity and joy is the perfect way to honor Beck’s legacy, he said.


"I don’t believe there is anything in our entire park system that represents John more than that collaboration of people coming together," Sandine said.


The meeting where Sandine made his recommendation was attended virtually by commissioners and members of Beck’s family. Commissioners and family members offered thoughtful, and often tearful, words about Beck.


"He was a true legend in our community, and he will be very, very missed and impossible to replace," Sandine said.


Board President Ian Linnabary said Beck was a "shining example" of the "ideal public servant."


"He was always thoughtful, always kind, always, always kept his composure and his cool, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do and a beautiful trait in an elected official," Linnabary said.


Beck served as the city’s 12th Ward alderman for 19 years. He was born in Hays, Kansas, grew up in Rockford and graduated from West High School and the University of Illinois.


It was in June 1978 that he broke his neck and damaged his spinal cord diving into a lake in Wisconsin, an accident that required him to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.


But Beck didn’t accept the grim fate doctors predicted for him after the accident: that he would require 24-hour care in an institution. Instead he worked, coached adaptive sports teams, volunteered with numerous service organizations, drove a modified van and represented his neighbors and fellow Rockfordians on the City Council.


He also became a strong advocate for others with disabilities. He worked as the development director for RAMP, a Rockford-based organization that offers services for people with disabilities, for 22 years.


"As an advocate, he did it with tremendous grace and camaraderie," Alderwoman Venita Hervey said.


The Edgewater Neighborhood Association received permission to place the luminarias outside City Hall and in prominent places in the neighborhood. Beck had served as the organization’s president.


Luminarias are typically displayed in Edgewater and other neighborhoods around the city in December. It was one of Beck’s favorite events.


"Luminaria is one of Edgewater's loveliest traditions, and a favorite night for John," the Edgewater Neighborhood Association wrote on its Facebook page. "If you feel so inspired, please light a candle tonight to remember and honor John's legacy. "


Flags will remain at half-staff in Beck’s honor through Sunday.


Kevin Haas: khaas@rrstar.com; @KevinMHaas