A bench in memory of a toddler who died three months ago was placed along the E&A Rail Trail Saturday by those who purchased it, but it was then removed Monday by town staff who said those who placed it there had not received approval from the town to do so.
Community members are planning a prayer service for Sunday afternoon in Elkin Municipal Park as well.
Mason Camden Roten was 16 months old when he died Sept. 6 following a hit-and-run vehicle accident Aug. 30 on N.C. 66 in Walkertown, which involved the truck he was traveling in with his parents, Andrew and Heather Roten, and 3-year-old brother Stewart of Winston-Salem. Mason’s father, Andrew, is a 2006 graduate of Elkin High School.
“After Mason, our grandson, passed, one of Andrew’s classmates of Elkin High School Class of 2006 started a Facebook page, and they wanted to create some kind of memorial,” explained Elkin resident Stewart Roten.
He said Ben Crosswhite, who graduated with Andrew, came up with the idea to have a bench made and placed at Elkin Municipal Park. “They called Andrew and asked if that was OK,” said Stewart. “They created the bench and put it out either Friday or Saturday.
“We went to see it Sunday morning, took several pictures and it was a wonderful tribute, a beautiful gesture on their part. The bench was beautifully crafted,” said Roten.
The bench, which is metal, has Mason’s full name, his birth and death dates, and the words “Psalm 127:3” on its back rest, and then across the front below the seat it reads, “Children are a Gift from the Lord, They are a Reward from Him.”
“We thought it was wonderful and beautiful on the part of Andrew’s friends,” Roten said. “Then this morning we see a post went out on the Facebook page that the bench could not be displayed anywhere in the park because of the Bible reference.”
Elkin Town Manager John Holcomb said part of the problem was he “didn’t know anything about it until this morning.”
Proper procedure would have been for the group planning to purchase the bench in memory of Mason to work through Adam McComb, Elkin’s recreation and parks director, since the park is owned by the town, said the town manager. “Typically people will contact Adam, so they can show him what type of bench they want to put in and get Adam’s approval and decide on the area they want to put the bench,” Holcomb said. “That didn’t happen.
“Adam got a call on Saturday and he wasn’t in the office,” he said, noting that McComb was in the mountains with his family getting a Christmas tree. “They said they were bringing this bench down and [McComb] said to leave it at the recreation center and he would take a look at it Monday.”
When McComb got to work, Holcomb said he didn’t find the bench so he thought they hadn’t brought it until someone spotted it on the E&A Rail Trail on one of the flower beds that surround the statue which serves as a tribute to the rail bed.
“We didn’t give any permission on what it would be like or where it would be installed,” Holcomb said. “The people who did this meant very well, but it had a biblical verse on it and when it is on public property, it makes it a different issue.
“Some people didn’t want our national motto ‘In God We Trust’ put on town hall, so anything that contains a religious message we’ve been very much aware of that,” he said.
The town staff did remove the bench from where those purchasing it placed it on the trail, and Holcomb has been consulting with Town Attorney Raymond “Scooter” Parker on the issue. “We are waiting on some feedback from our town attorney on what we may need to do that, and it may be something our town board will need to discuss,” said Holcomb.
“The people who did it didn’t go through the approval process and that could have saved us some of the issues we’re going through now. I think it was all done with the best of intent. I just can’t imagine what a family who lost their child is going through this time of year,” he said. “I’m trying to get in contact with the family to let them know we’re not evil people, but we do have an approval process for when memorials are put on town property.”
Holcomb said for now the bench has been removed, and “we’ll see what happens after next week” when the commissioners hold their meeting Monday.
“We really don’t have any religious references in our park at this point,” he said. “We had a lot of discussion about that, with ‘In God We Trust’ and even at the cemetery. If you have something on the gravesite, you own that, but in the public open areas, it is town property, and the park is that way, too.
“Our board probably are the ones who will have the last say. I’ve made them aware of it. I think everything was done with good intentions, we just have to back up.”
Roten said many people have weighed in on the issue on Facebook, and he said, “I hope whatever the Elkin High School Class of 2006 wants is what happens. … This was something that group had wanted to do and they did it, and we thought it was wonderful when we saw it. It was a really sweet thing they did.
“Yesterday [Sunday] marked the third month since Mason actually died, and it was already an emotional day. There were tears when we saw the bench in place because we were really touched, and then tears for a different reason today,” he said.
“We just appreciate so much all the people who have taken an interest in what Andrew and Heather experienced three months ago with the loss of a child, and we appreciate their interest now. It is very meaningful and comforting,” Roten said.
Community plans gathering
In an email about the prayer service set for Sunday at 2 p.m., Shallon Collins said, “Since when did political correctness become more important than the remembrance of a child that lost their life too soon? Since when did political correctness become more important than standing together as a community in support of a grieving family that’s lost their beautiful child? We drive the same streets daily and see small wooden crosses that mark where others have lost their lives, we drive on streets that are named after loved ones that have gone too soon. What is different about walking past a bench at the park? There is no difference.”
The short prayer service, Collins wrote, is “for the family of Mason, our community and our leaders.”
Pastor T.J. Jones of New Life Church has organized the prayer service and will be leading it, Collins said.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.