By Daniel Massey
As guests filed into the Roy Wilkins Family Center Saturday to the beat of two drummers, they enthusiastically greeted the new head of the southeast Queens park, William Nelson, as if he were the evening’s guest of honor.
But their comments to Nelson made it clear who was really being singled out for praise. The messages included such warnings as “you’ve got some serious work ahead of you” and “you have big shoes to fill.”
The shoes they referred to were those of Solomon Goodrich, 71, who after 26 years recently retired from his post as head of the Southern Queens Park Association.
“He’s really built a strong sense of community,” Nelson said. “I want to continue to build on his legacy.”
Family, colleagues, community leaders and politicians filled the gymnasium of the Family Center, which for an evening was transformed by a band and plenty of red balloons into a resplendent party hall.
“He is the heartbeat and the pulse of this park,” said Peter Richards, a member of the board of directors of the Southern Queens Park Association and the chairman of the retirement celebration committee. “He sets the pace and the agenda.”
In the mid-1970s, when 54 acres of dilapidated, rat-infested land donated by St. Albans Naval Hospital was offered to the community, Goodrich led a drive to form the Southern Queens Park Association to develop and operate what came to be known as Roy Wilkins Park.
More than 2 1/2 decades later, the park named after the civil rights activist and former Flushing resident who once was executive secretary of the NAACP, houses the family center, the Black Spectrum Theater and the beginnings of an African American Hall of Fame. It caters to thousands of borough residents from young children to senior citizens through an array of programs.
But more than any single program, Goodrich said he is proud of the institution he is leaving behind.
“The difference between an institution and an organization is you make it permanent,” Goodrich said. “For me the greatest thing I have done is to establish a sense of institution building here.”
Born on the island of Jamaica where his parents were banana farmers, Goodrich grew up in a small village and walked two miles to school each day until he was 12. He immigrated to the United States in 1967 and immediately got involved with the civil rights movement, rising to chief of staff and director of international affairs for the Congress of Racial Equality.
As a CORE representative in the 1970s, he visited 22 African countries and Caribbean nations with African populations to promote African unity.
He saw his job at Roy Wilkins as a continuation of those efforts. He said his work at the park began in 1974 out of a desire to build a community where children could play safely, but that the mission quickly grew to include education as well as recreation.
He became the first paid staff member of the Southern Queens Park Association, which was a successor to the Queens Federation of Youth organization and is comprised of a dozen local institutions, including nearby community boards and colleges.
The permanency of that association gives Goodrich the greatest sense of accomplishment.
“People recognize that this is a black institution,” he said. “A sense of institution building in the black community is one of the greatest things that we can accomplish.”
Goodrich said he plans to spend his retirement as the “head cook and bottle washer” for the African American Hall of Fame, which is facing a funding crisis.
He also hopes to write a memoir and a novel that “will bring the world to tears” and build an institution at the Board of Education of African Ancestry in Upper Manhattan in much the same way he helped make Roy Wilkins Park a thriving center in southeast Queens.
Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.