Hats off to the Women’s Committee of Smale Riverfront Park

Debbie Oliver and Helen Heekin, the founding co-chairs of The Women’s Committee, at the inaugural Hats Off Luncheon

Debbie Oliver and Helen Heekin, the founding co-chairs of The Women’s Committee, at the inaugural Hats Off Luncheon

By Sue Ann Painter

Never underestimate the power of a woman – or two, or seven. Especially those who dare to assemble 300 like-minded women intent on positive change.

For the past decade, such a group of civic-minded women has exerted a powerful influence on the transformation of Cincinnati’s bleak riverfront into the green and vibrant John G. and Phyllis W. Smale Riverfront Park.

Members of the Women’s Committee of Smale Riverfront Park, organized in late 2006, have made and secured countless project and endowment gifts.

On May 26, the Women’s Committee will host its 10th Annual Hats Off luncheon, a format initiated by volunteer leaders Helen Heekin and Debra Oliver.

In 2006, Heekin and Oliver volunteered to begin raising the funds needed to develop the riverfront area at the base of Roebling Bridge. They formed a team of seven with fellow Parks Foundation trustees: Lois Conyers, Amelia Crutcher, Ty Easley, Lib Stone and Lynda Thomas.

The women sent letters to potential supporters – accompanied by handwritten, personal notes – seeking “private funding for public greatness.” The letters themselves painted a picture of a park that “was to be the final phase of the riverfront development project that began in the early 1990s with the relocation of Ft. Washington Way, then the two stadiums, then the Banks, with the crown jewel – a beautiful new park planned to connect it all: a $120 million project to be built with a blend of city, state, and federal funds, with a significant figure of $40 million of private financial support necessary to augment the public funding.”

“Heck, at that time, we didn’t even really understand where the park was going to be located … just that it would become the ‘front door’ of our city … a green oasis along the banks of the Ohio River. None of us could have possibly imagined the pride and common purpose that the women of Cincinnati shared with the vision for this new park. They got it.”

– Debbie Oliver

Their Founding Membership direct-mail campaign in 2007 raised $300,000 over three months with more than 300 women signing on with gifts of $500 or $1,000. The $1,000 donors are recognized on the Women’s Committee Garden Wall. The enthusiasm and generosity of these women testified to the importance of their mission.

“The power of women’s voices and the resounding fundraising, advocacy and support was beyond our greatest hopes,” says Oliver.

To date, the Women’s Committee has raised more than $1.6 million.

Oliver and Heekin adopted a “hats off” theme for the first celebratory luncheon in May 2007.

Oliver recalls that first luncheon was staged “under a tent amidst the debris of abandoned skids and chain-link fencing in a parking lot along Mehring Way.” The Cincinnati Parks staff cleared out rubble to make the new park’s location visible to the 300 attendees.

That first luncheon wasn’t the only one that required more than a bit of scrambling. Another vivid memory, says Oliver, is from the 2011 luncheon. “The big tent on the Schmidlapp Event Lawn blew down with our hand-made glass terrarium centerpieces destroyed, along with caterer’s dishes and glasses when a mini-tornado blew through downtown at 2 a.m. A nightmare of epic proportions indeed!” Just hours later,when the nearly 600 guests arrived, no trace remained of any problem – thanks to quick action by the Parks crew.

During the first luncheon, the committee made a posthumous award to Phyllis Smale, who had been an advocate for dedicated green space, beautification and improvement to the local built environment.

John Smale attended the event honoring his late wife and was so impressed with the Women’s Committee and with Willie Carden, the Cincinnati Parks director, that he made a substantial gift to Cincinnati Parks. Then, in 2011, he gave $20 million in memory of his wife, for the riverfront park, which is named in the couple’s honor.

“In 2012, we lost Mr. Smale who was both our mentor and biggest cheerleader,” says Oliver. “His words of wisdom, belief in the value of the park as a place of both recreation and respite for citizens of Cincinnati, and his incredible philanthropy to make the vision a reality will never be forgotten.“

The Smale’s daughter, Cathy Smale Caldemeyer, is the current co-chair of the Women’s Committee. Her goal and that of the organization is to “fund-raise and to friend-raise, and to complete the Smale Park plan, which will take it further west of the bridge.”

In recent years, the Women’s Committee has also branched out beyond fundraising. In addition to their annual contributions, the women have organized a docent corps, whose members conduct educational tours of several riverfront parks, including Theodore Berry Friendship Park and Yeatman’s Cove as well as Smale.

While Smale Riverfront Park will continue to grow in scope and detail, it already has gained a reputation as a destination site. Adults, as well as children, delight in the scenic location along the riverfront and the whimsical recreational features such as Carol Ann’s Carousel, donated by Carol Ann & Ralph V. Haile Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation; the riverfront swings donated by Dianne and David Rosenberg; the Heekin Family/PNC Grow Up Great Interactive Adventure Playground; the Gardner Family Grove and Rose Garden; Castellini Esplanade; the Pichler Fountains and numerous other features.


Thursday, May 26, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Smale Riverfront Park

It’s subtitled Riverfront Rendezvous, and the 10th annual Hats Off Luncheon offers a chance for attendees to don their finest chapeaux (French for hats, it could mean a fedora, a fascinator, a wide-brimmed creation). Sponsored by the Women’s Committee of Smale Riverfront Park, the event will continue the decade of support for the riverfront revitalization project. Tickets are $175. cincinnatiparksfoundation.org


Cincinnatians are justly proud of their nationally acclaimed park system, which was planned by famed landscape architect George Kessler in 1907. At that time, in a Progressive Era reform, Cincinnati Parks governance was placed under an outside appointed board of commissioners.

The mission and function of the board is governance, not fundraising. Historically, private citizens have made major gifts and bequests to expand and sustain the parks. A notable early example was the magnificent gift of riverview acreage made by Levi Ault, who was park commissioner, and his wife. That became Ault Park.
Seeing a need and an opportunity for such support, the Park Board eventually organized a private foundation to cultivate and accept gifts.

Various 20th century land-use plans had proposed a park along the northern banks of the Ohio River, especially after the disastrous 1937 flood. The 1939 Riverfront Restoration Plan showed an interesting blend of mixed uses, including green space, playfields, a heliport, stadium, boat docks and apartment buildings. The east riverfront around Yeatman’s Cove was developed as Bicentennial Commons in 1988, but the west riverfront around the Suspension Bridge remained a challenge.

Foundation board members learned of grand proposals for new parks to the west. Over the years, numerous options were discussed, but everyone knew costs would be high, and public funds were scarce.

Sue Ann Painter is lead author and editor, Architecture in Cincinnati (Ohio University Press, 2006). s.painter@cincybooks.com


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