Mattie Stepanek always said he wanted to be remembered as "a poet, peacemaker and philosopher who played." In the coming years, fans, neighbors and strangers will be able to embrace his cheerful legacy in a park dedicated yesterday in his honor.
Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and several other elected officials were among the hundreds at the groundbreaking of the 26.2-acre Mattie J.T. Stepanek Park in Rockville's King Farm community.
Mattie -- who died about a year ago, days before turning 14 -- suffered from dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy and needed frequent blood transfusions and oxygen, along with a wheelchair and ventilator. But none of that stopped him from writing several best-selling books and making friends with such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey and former president Jimmy Carter.
During the dedication, Rockville City Council member Anne M. Robbins presented Mattie's mother, Jeni Stepanek, with a letter from Carter. Mattie and the former president shared an interest in peace and became close. Carter, who eulogized the teenager at his funeral, once said the young man was "the most extraordinary person" he had ever known.
Another book by Mattie is expected out in August, and a book of his conversations with Carter is to be published early next year, Stepanek said.
Robbins said yesterday that the former president fondly refers to the park as "the Mattie Park."
"He was very moved by this," said Robbins, who worked in the White House when Carter was president and has remained in touch with him.
For the last three years of his life, Mattie lived down the street from the park site and often cruised the area in his wheelchair with his service dog, Micah.
Mattie was "a great citizen of Rockville and a great citizen of the world," Rockville Mayor Larry Giammo said yesterday.
Jeni Stepanek said she expected a few dozen people to attend the dedication. Little did she know that the streets leading up to the untamed field would be lined with parked cars and that hundreds of neighbors and admirers would come from as far as Kansas in honor of the young icon.
Park designers are looking to embrace Mattie's spirit and legacy. Preliminary plans call for several playing fields, a dog park, parking lots and even a life-size statue of Mattie in his wheelchair playing chess, with his dog sitting by his side. Mattie's writing will be displayed on plaques throughout the park, Stepanek said.
Jim Hilton, Muscular Dystrophy Association coordinator for the Fort Washington chapter of the Harley Owners Group, knew Mattie and saw him at several of the association's functions. "Mattie became like an honorary member of our chapter," Hilton said.
After the groundbreaking ceremony, dozens of bikers led a procession to a reception.
Several in attendance walked from their houses. Chia-Chien Chuang lives across from the park and said she looks forward to taking her daughter to play there.
"Since my daughter is 1 year old, I think it can make an impact in her life to come," she said.
Stepanek, who has the adult version of the disease that killed her son and her three older children, said school officials have inquired about when students can visit the park on field trips. She told them to come back in a few years.
Because the park's plans are still preliminary, the cost is not known. Planners are hoping to complete it in a year, but it could take as long as three years, Stepanek said.
The land was donated by developers of King Farm, and the city will foot the bill, Rockville spokesman Neil H. Greenberger said. It will be the last park of its size to be developed in the city, and it is particularly special because it is dedicated to Mattie's memory, he said.
"That's why it's important that we do it right," he said.
In her remarks at the ceremony, Stepanek took a second to imagine what her son would say if he had been there.
"I guess Mattie would say, 'Let the party begin!' " she said.