Guest Column: Funds needed to build accessible fishing pier

By Jim Keeling
President, Rockford Park District Foundation Board

Editor’s note: This column is reprinted from Fundamentals, the Rockford Park District Foundation newsletter, Fall 2011.

You may have heard that the Rockford Park District Foundation is helping raise money to help build an accessible fishing pier, and you may even wonder why. I was asked this recently, and responded with the story of my friend John Beck. This story illustrates how public projects can also have strong personal significance.

It was 1994 when Beck, who is paralyzed from a spinal cord injury suffered when he was a teenager, was fishing with a friend, both of whom use a wheelchair. You might know Beck; he is a Rockford Park District employee and City of Rockford alderman.

The two friends were fishing from a floating dock that was connected to the shore by a ramp. But the dock didn’t have handrails or any other barriers that prevented their chairs from possibly going over the side.

After hours of fishing, Beck turned around to leave, but his chair surged forward and straight into the water. The situation was, in fact, dire and life threatening, and I cannot start to convey the emotional impact that John experienced. Fortunately, he was able to free himself from the wheelchair and stay afloat until help arrived. Beck was obviously shaken but unharmed, and his chair was recovered.

Beck was extremely fortunate that day. But the incident illustrates the need for an accessible fishing pier in our community. While northern Illinois is a popular fishing destination, the opportunities for those with physical disabilities to fish are limited. The ability to fish requires accessibility features that are not intrinsic to the shoreline of local rivers, lakes, and ponds. Surprisingly, the Rock River has no wheelchair-accessible components.

That’s why the Rockford area fishing clubs and the Rockford chapter of AMBUCS (a service club promoting independent lifestyles for people with disabilities) approached the Rockford Park District recently about building an accessible fishing pier. The clubs offered to help the Park District Foundation raise funds for the construction of a wheelchair-accessible fishing pier on the Rock River located along the recreation path near the Auburn Street bridge. The cost to build the fishing pier is approximately $110,000. Construction is set to begin next summer.

The pier will be named after the late David E. Johnson, an avid fisherman and local disability advocate. Johnson, who served as a Rockford alderman for 30 years, was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis at the age of 14. But his health issues didn’t stop him from enjoying the sport he loved – fishing. He was a long-time member of the Rock Valley Anglers, mentored young fishing enthusiasts, and he even fished with TV personality Babe Winkelman.

As for John Beck, he didn’t let his near tragedy slow him down; he is spearheading this all-important project for other anglers with disabilities.

You can help, too. To make a donation, please contact Don Mosser, Foundation/Financial Services Development Consultant, at (815) 969-4077 or

From the Nov. 23-29, 2011, issue

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