Years from now, visitors looking out over a peaceful bend in the Tuolumne River at Fox Grove Park will wonder who Brian Peeper was, and why his memorial bench turns toward the fish instead of the picnic tables sharing the grassy overlook.
Eagle Scout candidate Ryan Fachner, 15, could tell them. On Saturday, the Enochs High sophomore said he liked the view, but pointed out the warning sign barely visible below in the hyacinth-clogged river.
“My uncle passed right next to it, in the water,” Ryan said, gazing down at a spot by the boat access ramp. Going fishing and just spending time at the park with his uncle, who was autistic, are what he remembers, he said. “He loved nature.”
Ryan, with about a dozen family and friends, poured the footings for three benches at the park Saturday, finishing his Eagle project. Last week, he and about 15 friends installed the seating and power washed graffiti off the concrete picnic tables.
Both days, crews walked the grounds, picking up food wrappers and ripped bits of plastic bags – the trash that so frustrated Peeper, who died July 27, 2009, at age 41. Peeper was picking up trash by the river, wearing a life vest, when he had a seizure and drowned, said his sister, Paula Fachner of Modesto.
“My brother was a very special person, so loving. Brian loved to be outside, with the fish and the birds. He felt like he could communicate with them,” Fachner said. “He had this childlike honesty.”
Her son Ryan was only 10 when his uncle died, she said. “It just makes my heart explode that he remembers so much.” The 10-year-old Ryan said he would do something at the park for his Eagle project. “He kept it up. I just thought it was something that he said at the time,” Fachner said. “I could not be more proud of my son.”
All three of the new benches face serene views. All were built to last of donated composite decking, to withstand the weather, and donated pipes filled with donated concrete to discourage thieves.
“People are very generous when they hear Boy Scout,” Ryan said, but added making those calls was his biggest challenge. “The hardest part was learning how to talk to people and not really being nervous,” he said.
“I think it’s been a great learning experience and a great thing he did for his uncle,” Ryan’s dad Jeff Fachner said. “He had a lot of experience dealing with people, to learning how to organize and deal with a job site.”
Eagle projects require creating a budget, getting permits and permissions, organizing volunteers and seeking out donations, said Scoutmaster Mike Cummins. “It’s a management project,” he said. “They have to get donations and deal with the bureaucracies of the community to do this.”
Others in Modesto’s Troop 7 working on Eagle projects are Joe Minato, who plans to renovate the horseshoe pits at Enslen Park, and Cole Webber, who is working on putting birdhouses along Dry Creek. Cummins said roughly 100 Boy Scouts a year attain the Eagle rank in the six-county Greater Yosemite Council, out of 17,000 members.
“The best thing is the leadership experience. They have to interact with city officials and present their case, go through the process for what they want to do. It’s quite an undertaking,” said assistant Scout master Dick Conners.
Years from now, Ryan said, he hopes his kids will sit on those benches. “I was hoping one day I could come here and show them what I did, because I’m really proud of it,” he said.