Secret garden in Sea Cliff pays tribute to library lover


The late-summer sky was pale blue last Sunday, when residents got their first look at the newest addition to Sea Cliff’s Stenson Memorial Children’s Library — a secret backyard garden.

The sprawling landscape of perennial plants and hydrangeas fills the space with vibrant pops of orange, purple and pink petals, while stone and iron benches provide places for children to learn. At the entryway to the garden, a steppingstone reads, “Generously donated by the family and friends of Jacqueline M. Hudak” — who died on Aug. 28, 2013, after a bout with cancer. She was just 41.

“When she passed, we asked people to make a donation to the children’s library in lieu of flowers,” said her widower, Marc Hudak. “And we really received a significant amount of donations.”

After collecting $40,000 in donations over the past five years, Hudak worked with librarians and village officials to commission a memorial garden at Stenson in Jackie’s honor. He enlisted the help of his friends to design and create a space that the whole community could enjoy.

“The ultimate privilege of living in Sea Cliff is being able to push your stroller through town and come to the children’s library for Story Time,” Hudak said. “Once we had children, we really came to appreciate Sea Cliff for that reason.”

Hudak recalls his wife taking their daughter, Gabriella, now 9, to the library as a toddler. While she played with other children, Jacqueline would meet with other moms, and they would exchange stories of their own.

“When the babies were little, we would come for the weekly story hour, and that’s how we met all the moms, and that’s how we got to meet Jackie,” said resident Madeleine Mahnken, who helped design the garden. “It’s where we made all of our friends when we first moved here.”

Resident Todd Korte, another garden designer, said he wanted it to represent what the library has provided for him and other families in the village: community. “It’s our connection with Marc and Jackie that really brought us all together to renovate the space,” Korte said. “The idea behind it was to create a magical place where mothers and kids could linger, play and spend time.”

During the grand opening, head Librarian Ann DiPietro said she remembered the boundless enthusiasm and energy that Jackie Hudak brought to every activity she attended at Stenson. “The friendships, as we always hope, branch from here,” DiPietro said, recalling the moms who had befriended Jackie through countless Story Times. “We miss her, but we look at the garden and we think of her.”

What was once a plain yard is now a “peaceful oasis” that DiPietro said brings new life to the library. “It’s been given an identity, and it’s beautiful, and it’s magnificent,” she said.

Hudak said it felt good to give back to the community and honor his wife in this special way. “We’ve gotten a lot out of the library, and we love Ms. Ann,” he said, “and it’s just nice that we were able to improve it a little bit and make the space available for the next generation of children.”

While she admitted that seeing the completed garden brought tears to her eyes, Mahnken said, “Its beauty pales in comparison to the beautiful person Jackie was.”