A Look Back on Rita Harvard’s Life

Family and friends are remembering longtime Naperville resident and community leader Rita Harvard. Harvard passed away on June 15 in her home after a long battle with COPD, a chronic lung disease.

Loved ones gathered at Grace United Methodist Church in central Naperville this week to reflect on Harvard’s 82 years. Her son Tom Castagnoli delivered the eulogy.

“There’s an old saying that as parents that we want our children to do better than we’ve done. I’m in trouble,” Castagnoli quipped, generating laughter from the crowd of 300. “I would need to be Superman, Captain America and the Incredible Hulk all rolled into one just to keep up with her.”

Castagnoli went on, citing Harvard’s commitment to Naperville as a part of her lasting legacy.

“If she would have devoted her time to a career in business, I suppose she would have been the female version of Bill Gates” Castagnoli continued. “She was that smart. But instead she gave herself to her family and to Naperville. And she asked for nothing in return. What she got was a great deal of love and respect.”

Her commitment to the city she loved shines through in many ways.

The most notable is Fredenhagen Park, the near acre of land east of Washington Street on the Riverwalk dedicated in honor of Harvard’s parents. The land is the former site of her family’s Prince Castle and Cock Robin ice cream business. The park was made possible by Rita and her brother Ted Fredenhagen, who donated the land to the city in 1997.

In addition, Harvard was a life trustee at North Central College. She shepherded many projects in her time on the board, including chairing the fundraising committee for the $30 million Wentz Concert Hall. She always did things her own way.

“I always think of one word, and that’s grace,” remembered fellow NCC trustee and friend Ray Kinney. “Maybe because that was her mother’s name, maybe because that’s the way she lived her life, but we have all been blessed to know Rita, to touch her, to feel her. Continue to do that in your hearts.”

Harvard also helped pave the way for Naperville women, becoming the first woman member of Naperville’s Rotary Club in 1987. Seven years later, she was the organization’s first president. Mayor George Pradel said Harvard “just brought spark” and “lots of excitement” to the club. NCTV 17 Executive Director Liz Spencer pointed to the meaning of such an accomplishment.

“One of the things that I’ve just recently discovered with her is just how much of a pathway that she really charted for women and for leadership in Naperville,” Spencer said. “She really went through a lot and rose above it and was a strong leader, and for that I’m truly grateful.”

In 2010 the Naperville Jaycees presented Harvard with their lifetime achievement award. In the same year, Rotary renamed its honor the “Rita Harvard Lifetime Achievement Award.”

“Somehow, difficult though it was, sometimes I’m sure, Rita just kind of loved and served us all,” said Rev. Bill Bryan, parish pastor of Grace United Methodist Church. “And she’s amazing for that. And she just touched something deep within us. We will never forget her.”

Memorials in Rita Harvard’s name may be directed to North Central College, the Naperville Heritage Society or the Grace United Methodist Church Foundation.

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