2.07.08

A Tribute to Dave Oats
January 25, 1950
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February 5, 2008

We mourn the loss of a World's Fair historian, Queens advocate and protector of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. nywf64.com presents a tribute to a friend.

Dave Oats in his home overlooking Flushing Meadows-Corona Park
David Oats

DAVID OATS passed away on February 5, 2008. Dave was a remarkable man. He and his lovely wife, Corinne, shared an apartment with a unique view of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park from thirty stories above in in Forest Hills, Queens. Spread below them, the view stretches from Meadow Lake in the south through the Fairground legacies of the Unisphere, New York State Pavilion, Fountain of the Planets, Terrace on the Park, Hall of Science, National Tennis Center and Shea Stadium, to Flushing Bay beyond.

But it was not this geographical view alone that gave Dave a unique perspective of Flushing Meadows - it was a four-decades-plus personal history with this 1,200 acre park that allowed him to be an eyewitness, historian and participant in some of the greatest moments of this very special place.

David was born and raised in Flushing and, as a kid growing up in the 1950s, enjoyed the park around the corner from his housing project as his "backyard."

Unmindful of its past role as host of the 1939-1940 World's Fair, the park was simply the place to play ball, ice-skate, swim and picnic during the summers. Then, in 1961, they closed the park down to build a "World's Fair" to be opened in 1964. The young Oats, angry that his backyard had been taken away, would sneak through the heavy gates and play cat-and-mouse with the Pinkerton guards who patrolled the Fair construction site. Until one day, in August, 1962, when a severe thunderstorm literally halted the boy's wanderings in the dangerous construction site. He was caught, by the "Pinks," up to his knees in mud!

His eviction by the cops lead to a chance encounter with Robert Moses who felt bad for the local kid. Moses directed his secretary to take his name and address so the Fair could send publicity stuff and so Dave wouldn't, in Moses' words, "come back here 'till it's open in '64!" From there Dave began a long involvement with the Fair site; as a "Junior Public Relations Rep." (unpaid but official as Bill Berns, the Fair's Vice-President for Public Relations, bestowed the title!) that allowed Oats an insider's look at the inner workings of the Fair and, of course, to just enjoy the Fair itself.

World's Fair President Robert Moses and David Oats outside RM's office in the Administration Building, October, 1965
Oats with Moses

That chance encounter resulted in a decades-long friendship with Robert Moses, with Dave even being presented with the World's Fair flag that had flown over the Administration Building from 1962 to June 3,1967 (the day the Fair handed the park back to the city). He regularly consulted with Moses about a local person's view of how to develop the post-Fair park. Forming a local citizen's action group in 1970 to not only preserve the site's amazing history but to stem a growing neglect of the park by the city, Oats created the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park World's Fair Association and for the next decade it fought the Manhattan-oriented bureaucracy that allowed the park and it's facilities and environment to deteriorate.

Along the way there were victories, such as the creation of a true Queens cultural center in the park, saving Willow Lake from destruction by developers, the tennis center at the old Singer Bowl (renamed for Louis Armstrong). But there were losses and defeats also - the shameful neglect of the New York State Pavilion and the 1939 Aquacade - and worst of all, the deplorable neglect, decay and destruction of the 1964 World's Fair Federal Pavilion.

For over two decades, David held the position of Editor-in-Chief of the two largest newspapers in Queens writing, along with the regular stories, on the history and the conditions at Flushing Meadows. An intense investigative series on a major asbestos scandal and cover-up by the city at Terrace on the Park in the late 1990's caused the shutting of the entire building, a million-dollar clean-up of the structure and the ouster of the long-time lease holders of the structure and the placement of new management. The series of articles in the Queens Tribune received two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism.

Even after suffering a stroke several years ago, David still managed to monitor the city's care of the park. He lead an effort to clean up the last vestige of the old "valley of ashes" at Willets Point by bringing the 2012 Olympic Stadium there to complete Moses' vision of Flushing Meadow Park. Most recenly, he advocated for action to be taken to revive the New York State Pavilion and publicly called on the Parks Department administration to take action on conditions that he found inexcusable at Flushing Meadows.

Of nywf64.com Dave once wrote, "I've found the site, it's information, graphics and mission of keeping alive this great event in history for those who were there and those who were not but love and preserve it, to be unbelievably rewarding, I have great admiration for all the people who are a part of sharing and participating in this site. I've reacquainted with some old friends and found so many delightful and interesting new ones that I wanted to do here what is not possible in the cold prose of a book or journalism - and that is to share with this site what unique perspective I might have on the past, present and future of this amazing park and open it up to other views and opinions."

With that, David began writing a series of essays that focused, not only on the Fairs, but on the legacies of their physical remnants in the park and how they relate to the present and future of the park. We called this series "Perisphere's Perspective." Time was never one of David's best friends and time permitted him to complete just three essays for this website since Perisphere's Perspective's inception. They remain as part of the archives of the site and always will, just as Dave will always remain a part of the history of the Fair and an inspiration for those of us who have an interest in the Fair and a desire to see it preserved at Flushing Meadows.

Thank you, Dave, for your friendship, your insights, your memories and your passion. You are missed.

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