It’s as peaceful a place as any in the city of culture and heritage. A garden at the far south side of Winter Park’s Central Park holds a variety of roses in a hexagonal planter with rows of benches nearby – an escape from the bustling outside world. It’s been the site of small weddings as the pathways lined with Summer Snow, Razzle Dazzle and Kentucky Derby roses lead to an archway of wooden beams held up by red brick pillars.
But the quiet garden along Park Avenue holds a different value to Orlando residents Martin and Pamela Buckley. The rose bushes and brick pathways kindle fond memories of countless Saturday afternoons, when their three daughters played tag and sipped lemonade in the garden after a trip to the nearby farmers market years ago.
Today, the distant memories and mental photographs of their middle child have never been more cherished.
They’re some of the most treasured intangibles left behind by their beloved daughter, Elizabeth.
A 13-year-old girl’s spirit will live on in Winter Park’s Central Park if an old friend’s endeavor succeeds: placing a peacock fountain at the center of the park’s tranquil rose garden – allowing her memory to bloom and never fade away.
It’s all a project headed by 15-year-old Life Scout and Bishop Moore Catholic High School soon-to-be sophomore John Michael Thomas, who lost a dear friend and classmate in December 2012 when Elizabeth passed away of an inoperable brain tumor.
When John Michael needed to take on a final project last fall in his ongoing pursuit of becoming an Eagle Scout – he couldn’t think of a better task than a tribute to the girl he’d known since kindergarten at St. Margaret Mary Catholic School.
“It’s someone who’s been in your class your whole life,” John Michael said. “It kind of struck me at such a young age about the value of life and how important she was.”
On April 28 John Michael brought a proposal for the fountain before the members of the Winter Park City Commission, who eagerly showed their support for the project.
“A wonderful friend and an awesome gift for the city,” City Commissioner Carolyn Cooper said.
“It’s great to have young people in front of us doing wonderful things,” City Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel said. “It makes you realize that the world will go on.”
The 7-foot, bronze fountain depicts a large peacock atop a pillar, with running water flowing from a bowl platform and down the bird’s long tail feathers. Today the fountain resides in England with artist Lloyd Le Blanc – it’ll cost $47,000 to purchase and ship the work to Winter Park.
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A total goal of $50,000 will cover irrigation and landscape costs along with an engraved message acknowledging Elizabeth’s inspiration.
That’s where John Michael’s project comes in. The Eagle Scout hopeful has already begun a fundraising effort to get the fountain to Winter Park. He plans to put on carwashes and bake sales through Bishop Moore while hosting wine and cheese events at residential homes to pitch his project, accepting any community donations as well.
He managed to raise $3,200 within just the first week of fundraising – before hosting a single event.
The statue of the majestic bird couldn’t have been a more fitting tribute, said Elizabeth’s mother, Pamela. If the eighth grader at St. Margaret Mary ever had a trademark symbol, it would likely have been the bird bearing the fan-shaped, colored tail feathers.
Elizabeth had loved peacocks for as far back as her father Martin could remember, keeping stuffed animal peacocks on her bed as a young child.
Drawings of peacocks with colored pencil covered her bedroom walls and filled her shelves, while an easel on her balcony sported a painted peacock feather with the words “love life” written below.
Her artistry and love for Winter Park’s signature bird was even on display at the Winter in the Park ice skating event in her fourth grade year: a painted peacock wearing a Santa Claus hat on display by the rink.
“She would love it,” said Pamela, gazing at a photograph of the fountain that would embody her daughter’s memory and sprit.
“[John Michael] set his mind to do it, so I know he’ll do it. We’re behind him 100 percent.”
Elizabeth’s ailment first surfaced in December 2011 when she started feeling pains in her neck. An MRI revealed the inoperable tumor in her brain – a type that doctors see only 200 cases of each year in the U.S., Pamela said.
An outpouring of support came from the community as Elizabeth’s love for peacocks became the focus of many gifts, including peacock umbrellas, jewelry, rain boots, blankets and a glass vase filled with peacock feathers from her classmates.
Elizabeth’s love for the colorful birds and art could only be rivaled by her passion for lacrosse, which her two sisters played as well. She picked up the sport in second grade, playing on local club teams like the Orange Crush up until her eighth grade year.
Elizabeth showed her intense competitiveness on the field while also being a graceful winner and loser, Martin said.
“She was an all too rare mix of spunk and grace,” he said.
“She was a very kind person. She did lift you up … I think her sisters miss her a great deal, because she was so supportive.”
In Feb. 2012, Elizabeth went on the operating table – a surgery to help treat her worsening brain tumor. Elizabeth had begun to lose her motor skills because of the tumor’s increasing size.
But that didn’t stop her from enjoying the sport she loved one last time. Three months after her surgery, Elizabeth took to the field for her lacrosse team’s final game of the spring season.
A soft rugby helmet protected her skull as she registered a handful of shots on goal – her teammates passing the ball to her lacrosse stick every chance they got.
Elizabeth’s few minutes on the field may have been the only playing time she got that season, but the moment couldn’t have been more special for the Buckley family, Martin said.
“The recovery from that surgery was very challenging for her, but she so loved lacrosse that she was able to come back and play,” Martin said.
“She lost her step and wasn’t as fast, but she got out there and played … that was pretty special … realistically we knew her health would not allow her to play ever again.”
The Buckley family continued to receive an outpouring of support from the community as Elizabeth pressed on through her condition.
On the night of the eighth grade dance at St. Margret Mary, it was John Michael’s turn to show his support for Elizabeth. The Winter Park Boy Scout already knew just what to do before the dance, said his mother Valorie.
“I ironed his shirt like a good mom and I said, ‘I need to talk you before you leave,’” Valorie said.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to dance with Elizabeth.’”
That night the two of them shared a dance, unaware of the campaign John Michael would later spearhead in Elizabeth’s name.
Unaware of what might come next, completely absorbed in the moment, the two moved to the music.
Elizabeth’s battle ended just as 2012 came to a close. She passed away New Year’s Eve of that year.
John Michael said he plans to host a dedication ceremony for Elizabeth once the fountain is acquired and finished, hoping to have it placed in the Central Park rose garden by this fall.
“It’s immensely gratifying to us as a family that not only is she still remembered, but she’s remembered so fondly that she would serve a catalyst to what is a really amazing project,” Martin said. “…A signature fountain by a world-renowned sculptor in Central Park – a place that she loved – that everyone can enjoy.”
“It’s very important to me,” said Pamela as her voice quivered, “because I know that it’s a place where she’ll be remembered for years and years and years.”
Martin and Pamela hope to see the memories of their daughter take shape and substance, materializing into a fountain their family can visit for generations.
Elizabeth would spend hours playing in that park, Pamela said.
With her memory preserved in glimmering bronze, Elizabeth’s spirit would never have to leave.