This year, the annual Starry Starry Night Gala honored a single individual, Elizabeth Waldstein, the former Executive Director of the Walkway Over the Hudson, who served the organization for 12 years.
The Walkway lies 212 feet above the Hudson River and is 1.28 miles in length. It was formally a railroad bridge that connected the Midwest to New York City and New England, running through Highland and Poughkeepsie. It is now a New York State Park and is the longest pedestrian bridge in the world. The park welcomes about 700,000 people a year.
During Waldstein’s tenure, she raised funds to support major programs and capital initiatives such as the Dutchess Rail Trail connection and the Waterfront Elevator, and implemented many Walkway Master Plan improvements, including benches, solar lighting, signage, the Washington Street staircase and the construction of the East and West Pavilions on each side of the Park.
Before introducing Elizabeth, Architect and Acoustician John Storyk discussed the long journey that led to the creation of the Walkway Over the Hudson State Park.
Storyk said in May 2006 he accepted the position of Director of the Walkway Over the Hudson Board, “who were about to usher this 130 year old bridge into the next chapter of its life, believing it a good idea to have an architect/engineer on the board.”
Storyk said when he started out he had very little understanding of the challenging work ahead, but the project appealed to him because of its elegant simplicity.
“We really only had two goals: convert the bridge and get it open by 2009,” he said. “Although the project was massive and complicated, we set out to transform our bridge into a world class destination and I believe we succeeded. It changed our communities and it changed our lives and then enter our honoree, our Elizabeth.”
Storyk said after Elizabeth came on board, there were dozens of new projects being considered, “including ones we didn’t even know about and there was no better person than our Elizabeth to dream, inspire and lead our team to complete these goals. She did this while steering a small and nimble group of amazingly effective staff and members of our Friends organization and sorting out how we stay funded for the future and how we leave ourselves a legacy.”
Storyk highlighted several lasting achievements; the Ambassadors of the Walkway program, building visitor centers with bathrooms, installing an elevator on the east side of the Walkway, placing benches, flags, banners and solar lights on the bridge and hosting events and community functions. He said many people and organizations contributed to the success of the Walkway, “but I believe in my heart this would not have been possible without our Elizabeth. She has a way of making us all reach our higher goals and has an amazing love for our community and the Walkway.”
In her speech, Elizabeth summed up her beliefs in three words: community, generosity and gratitude, that resulted in transforming a closed, old railroad bridge into a wonderful New York State park.
“I sincerely hope you understand and you feel that I have returned your kindness and I appreciate what you all have done. For me, it’s all been about friends, family, community, generosity and gratitude that’s brought us to this place where we have this outstanding facility in the Walkway Over the Hudson.”
In a subsequent interview, Elizabeth stressed that she did not achieve this alone but with the invaluable help of about 40 other people. She was thrilled to hear in June that she was going to be this year’s honoree at the Gala.
“I’m very happy with what we’ve accomplished and I’ve done a good job,” she said. “The Walkway Over the Hudson has been an amazing experience, and I’m really proud that I was able to bring my 40 years of experience with non-profits that seemed to fit so well with the Walkway.”
Walkway Board member Howie Schwartz, said although the work is sometimes hard, “I love the people,” while lending advice when and where needed.
NYS Senator Michelle Hinchey said, “the walkway is such a special entity that we have in the Hudson Valley. It’s a huge tourism driver, a huge economic driver and is a physical and literal connector between Dutchess and Ulster counties. To see how far it’s come and to see the dedication of volunteers, and of course of Elizabeth, and so many others who had a vision from nothing to create something that we are here all celebrating today is really exciting.”
Hichey’s late father, Congressman Maurice Hinchey, was able to secure the initial funding that got the Walkway project moving. Now his daughter Michelle is carrying on that legacy and last year she was able to secure a grant of $125,000 to build a Pavilion and to hire a farm market manager, in the parking area off Haviland Road, adjacent to the Hudson Valley Rail Trail.
Hinchey said the Walkway, “puts us on the map and people come from all over...There was the vision, determination and getting the funding, which was very difficult; and to power through that has been amazing. To celebrate that today and to be together, especially after the pandemic, is a great legacy of an iconic structure here.”
Newly elected Congressman Pat Ryan [NY-18] described the Walkway as a, “treasure of our community. Like all great ideas the skeptics were out in the beginning and as the saying goes, success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.”
Ryan said the Walkway brings people together, “and the whole region of the Hudson Valley is so exciting right now.”