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Late activist David Oats honored with garden

David Oats, a Forest Hills resident who died of cancer in 2008, would have loved the garden named in his honor last week that is nestled in the park to which he devoted decades of his life and near the structures that had inspired him since boyhood, his wife said.

Several dozen people, including city officials and community activists, celebrated Oats’ legacy at a July 14 ceremony at Flushing Meadows Corona Park unveiling the space with roses, shrubs and benches now known as “David’s Garden.” The garden is near the Queens Museum of Art near the Unisphere and the New York State Pavilion.

“David would have been absolutely thrilled by this,” said Oats’ widow, Corrine Oats. “He spent over 30 years working to preserve this park and the structures in this park. He was the steward of this park; he called it his park.”

Oats, who grew up in Flushing and lived in a Forest Hills apartment with an expansive view of the park, was president of the Flushing Meadows Corona Park World’s Fair Association, which he founded in 1967. He died of cancer at 58 in February 2008 after years of working in the local newspaper business in Queens.

Over the decades, he became known to many a city official as a passionate, die-hard activist who would not take no for an answer.

“David and I had an interesting relationship,” Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski said, drawing laughs from ceremony attendees.

Although Oats could spar with city officials over how well they were maintaining the park, Lewandowski said government employees always appreciated the passion the Forest Hills resident brought to Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

“David loved this park and kept us on our toes,” Lewandowski said.

Borough President Helen Marshall said she hopes the garden will inspire parkgoers to take a minute to reflect on their surroundings, including the World’s Fair monuments that Oats so loved.

“Many people will walk by this spot, they might be headed to the Hong Kong boat races or to the zoo, but whatever they’re doing, I hope they’ll take a look and remember a man who strove to leave this park and this world a little better than he found it.”

Long an admirer of the park, Oats spent much of his pre-adolescent years playing in the fields. But one day he found the area closed off because of construction for the World’s Fair in 1962 — so he decided to sneak in, Corinne Oats said. While squeezing in through a fence to the park, he was caught by a guard and seen by Robert Moses, who organized the World’s Fairs in 1939 and 1964.

“He succeeded in charming Robert Moses,” Marshall said. “That is an impossible task.”

Moses and Oats became close friends, and the World’s Fair organizer became a mentor for Oats, who pressured city officials to open the Queens Museum of Art. Oats often called for the preservation of various World’s Fair structures and the park in his writings in the Queens Tribune and Queens Courier.

“He taught me you have to fight for something you believe in,” said Corinne Oats, who had her first date with her husband in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. “People change the world when they dream.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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