Town Board supports bid to rename skate park in memory of Wesley Ackley

Friends of a Riverhead man who died from cancer last month are hoping he will be immortalized at one of his favorite places: the town’s skate park.

Wesley Ackley, 27, died Jan. 24 and was described in an obituary as an “avid and passionate skateboarder.”

“Wes loved skateboarding, he loved the difference he made in this world and he loved the Riverhead Skate Park,” residents Lisa Drozd and Jill Lewis wrote in a letter to the Town Board. “He was a strong advocate for the skate park and had a passion that never wavered.”

The proposal to rename the skate park in his honor was embraced with support from the Town Board at a work session last Thursday.

“The world needs more role models and we need more inspirational stories, and I think that’s what we get when we listen to [his] story,” Councilman Ken Rothwell said. “The skate park is what it is today because of Wes.”

In 2010, at age 14, Mr. Ackley spoke at a Town Board meeting in opposition to raising fees at the skate park.

According to a News-Review article from Jan. 2010, Mr. Ackley cautioned board members against raising the fee for a season pass for nonresidents to $100. Instead, he urged the town to lower the fees, explaining that more kids would want to go if the price was right.

“The town can profit from the park, they just might have to change a few things,” he wrote. “Our skate park is decent, but not $100 worth.”

He also wrote that holding competitions at the park could help boost attendance.

The town’s recreation department had proposed the rate increase after data revealed that out-of-towners made up about 75% of park attendees.

The southern portion of Riverhead’s skate park at Stotzky Park in 2016. (File photo)

Mr. Ackley’s words led the Town Board to table that resolution and reconsider the proposal. At that meeting, then-councilman George Gabrielsen agreed that a lower fee would be more reasonable. “If we’ve got to the point in this town that we’re going to tax our 12 year-old children to use our facilities, something is wrong,” he said.

In an interview Friday, Mr. Ackley’s mother, Christine, said their family was moved by the proposal to rename the park in his memory.

“We were touched, we were surprised and blown away,” she said. 

Ms. Ackley recalled how her son gravitated towards skateboarding in lieu of organized sports. “He was never into the competitiveness of ‘me against you,’ and skateboarding isn’t like that,” she said. “You’re competing against yourself and helping [others] get better as well.”

The Baiting Hollow native began skateboarding at age 9 and spent countless hours honing his skills in Stotzky Park. After graduating from Riverhead High School in 2013, Mr. Ackley earned a bachelor’s degree in human services from New York City College of Technology and worked with the homeless through the Acacia Network in Brooklyn.

Ms. Ackley said Friday that her son found meaning through that work and helped open her eyes to the struggles others face. “He always did things his own way. He wasn’t a follower,” she said. “And he didn’t like any kind of judgment. He liked to connect with different people.”

Shortly after graduating from college, Mr. Ackley was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a spinal cancer. A surgery to remove the tumor left him unable to walk, but he was determined to bounce back through hard work, treatment and physical therapy.

In their letter to the Town Board, Ms. Drozd and Ms. Lewis recalled Mr. Ackley walking the hilly roads of their Oak Hills neighborhood throughout his recovery, trekking more than 120 steps up and down to the Long Island Sound beach below.

“He was determined to beat this cancer and he did it with a smile,” they wrote. “That smile lit up our community. He never gave up hope.”

Reflecting on her son’s advocacy for the Riverhead skate park, Ms. Ackley said the experience guided him through life. Though she recalls urging him to write the letter — “He was kvetching about it” — she said her son took the initiative to follow up with the Town Board.

“It was a big life lesson,” she said. “That writing an articulate letter, being present and speaking up for something you believe in can make a difference.”

Councilman Tim Hubbard said it’s a “great honor” to be asked to rename the park. “I 1,000% agree that this should be done and his name will live on through the park,” he said.

Parks and recreation superintendent Ray Coyne said Thursday that he can still remember the day Mr. Ackley spoke at the Town Board meeting more than a decade ago. “He was very articulate but very respectful,” Mr. Coyne said. “A few years down the road, we stopped charging for the skate park based on that meeting.”

In addition to renaming the park, officials may add a plaque or memorial where visitors can read Mr. Ackley’s story.

“[It would] share encouragement to all the youth in the community,”Mr. Rothwell said,”that everyone on an individual basis can make a difference.”