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You’re Not in Kansas Anymore

The Scarecrow of Oz Park
Image by ikrichter via Flickr

Statues of Dorothy, Toto, the Cowardly Lion and other characters from the classic film “The Wizard of Oz” are featured in Oz Park on Chicago’s North Side.

Created by sculptor John Kearney, the park is a little-known jewel visited by neighbors, children, and dog owners. Established in 1967 in the Lincoln Park area, its 13 acres are home to the Melamerson Athletic Field, Dorothy’s Playground, the Emerald Gardens and the Wizard of Oz statues.

Lynn Kearney, John Kearney’s wife, said in a recent phone interview, “The city wanted John to make more for the park, and he would have loved to. But he had reached an age were he just had to say ‘no.’”

Now 87, John Kearney finished the last sculpture for the park in 2007. When “Dorothy and Toto” was unveiled that year, aldermen and a local high school marching band attended a ceremony to present the statue to the public.

“That day John gave a speech, he leaned in and told the children that if they rub the tail of Toto they will have good luck. All the children rushed over to the dog and started to pet it,” Lynn Kearney said laughing. “It was very lovely. The children really enjoyed it.”

“Dorothy and Toto” are on display at the Webster entrance in the park. Toto, a black dog, has a tail that has turned golden from all the luck spread to children over the years.

Dorothy and Toto statue in Oz Park

Dorothy Melamerson, who taught gym in the Chicago Public Schools for 36 years, donated $900,000 to upgrade the facilities in the park and create youth sports teams in the 43rd Ward. In 1996, $600,000 of her estate went to the renovation of Oz Park and the creation of the Melamerson Athletic Field, according to a sign posted in the park. Melamerson died in 1994.

The athletic field has three baseball diamonds, a basketball and tennis court and a large lot dedicated to other activities like soccer, lacrosse and football.

Judy Johanson is the president of the Oz Park advisory council. On a recent sunny spring day, Johanson was walking her dog in the park. She said she comes to the park often to walk her dog and also volunteers in the Emerald Gardens.

Johanson said she has visited the park for 30 years; she added that she hated to see the poor condition of the park back in the 1980s. Fifteen years ago, a group of neighbors went to the park district and asked for help in fixing up the park.

“The park district turned us down. They said if we wanted to fix up the park we would have to raise the money ourselves, and we did,” said Johanson. “Not many people remember the rebirth of the park, but I remember it all too well, and in my opinion the garden is the best part. Now people have a quiet place to get away from the active part of the park. People can just sit in the garden and read a book or picnic with their kids.”

Reed Henning, 19, thinks the garden is the best part of the park. “It’s really relaxing here. I feel like it’s always sunny in the garden, it could be raining but it will still feel sunny, which is awesome,” Henning said.

There is also a jogging/bike path that wraps around the entire park. A wooden jungle gym, called Dorothy’s Playground, provides a shady haven for children.

Dan Cammon said he has been coming to Oz Park for 25 years. He said residents in the neighborhood don’t mind the many people who walk their dogs in the park.

“Even though it’s against the law, I like the dogs. You aren’t supposed to have dogs in any city of Chicago park, but since the neighborhood doesn’t complain and the people don’t mind, the police don’t enforce the law, and everyone enjoys bringing their dog out here,” Cammon said.

His favorite statue is “The Tin Man.” “I like it because my kids have their name on a brick underneath the statue. It’s cool that it will remain there forever,” Cammon said.

Kearney used old car bumpers and bronze to form the statues throughout Oz Park. He used only bumpers before 1985 because they were made out of heavier material, said Lynn Kearney.

“We had a whole room dedicated to just bumpers. There was a point when he thought he was going to run out, but even after we closed the studio we still had tons of bumpers,” Kearney said laughing.

Kearney’s sculptures are on display all over the country, his wife said. “He worked really hard. As an artist you can’t slack off, you have to work, and he loved it,” she said. “You can’t do it halfheartedly, you have to put your soul into it, and that’s what he has done his entire life.”

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