With a tissue clamped in hand and tears ready to fall, Kathy Smith said she was overcome with emotions to be surrounded by a community of Tom Petty fans.
“It’s just been so great to be around people who just understand because it’s been really hard since last October,” she said.
Smith, a 53-year-old school principal from Morris, New York, made a pilgrimage to Gainesville to be in the city for the dedication of Tom Petty Park, at 400 NE 16th Ave. Smith has listened to Tom Petty’s music since the 1970s.
“I had to be able to experience where he lived, where he grew up and mostly just to feel this love from everybody,” she said.
Smith and more than 300 people were at the dedication ceremony at the park formerly known as Northeast Park in honor of Tom Petty’s 68th birthday. The park was a frequent hangout spot for Petty and his younger brother, Bruce Petty.
“It was a place for us to escape and be kids and have fun,” Bruce Petty said.
Before the red park sign with Tom Petty’s name and a photo was revealed, Mayor Lauren Poe, Bruce Petty and Tom Petty’s daughter, Adria Petty, gave speeches.
In deciding how to memorialize the late Gainesville-raised rockstar, Poe said the city considered other options like a statue, but Poe said his legacy meant more than a statue and felt the park was the perfect fit.
“This is where he spent his childhood,” Poe said. “This is where he was with his friends and where he escaped and just soaked in the experience that was Gainesville back in the ‘70s.”
Adria Petty said fans and residents in the city have been welcoming to her. Fans across the world have made the difficult process of his death much easier.
“Gainesville is an extraordinary place, where if you listen to my dad’s music here, it has a different meaning,” she said.
Fans came from across the country, many of them members of Tom Petty Nation, a Facebook group founded by Keith Eveland. The 54-year-old superfan from Panama City said the group now has more than 33,000 members since he started it five years ago.
“It’s really touching to see how many people connect with it,” he said. “I feel like when I created it, that Tom sprinkled a little magic dust on it.”
Cindy Lou Safar, 60, a member of the Facebook group, drove eight hours from Gretna, Louisiana, with her husband and 40 pounds of plastic bead necklaces that she handed out to fans. She wanted to bring something special after she read in the group that others would be giving away handmade pins and jewelry.
She became a fan of Tom Petty’s music when she began listening to him after she graduated high school in 1976.
“It just grabbed a hold of my heart,” she said.