Longtime friend Gene Darfler, who met Rita in first grade at Ellsworth School, said Rita gained that reputation from an early age and was always involved in different school groups. “She was everyone’s favorite,” Darfler said. “She was so popular.”
Rita Harvard is one of Naperville’s few natives. Born and raised here her parents Grace and Walter Fredenhagen began the tradition of serving their community. The Fredenhagens were the founders of Cock Robin ice cream stores and the inventors of the One in a Million Malted milk. They also originated a soda treat called the “Blizzard,” a name now used by that lesser known store, Dairy Queen. Through the years, the Fredenhagens bought the land, built and operated dozens of stores throughout the area.
Firm in his belief that Naperville was going to be big, Walter Fredenhagen purchased 100 acres of land on Hobson Road along Oleson during World War II, paying just $200 an acre. The banker thought he was throwing away his money.
But it wasn’t ice cream and real estate that made the Fredenhagens one of the leading Naperville families, it was commitment. Walter Fredenhagen was chairman of the first plan commission and got involved in a variety of early retail issues and charitable pursuits. Both Grace and Walter were extremely involved in Naperville activities, helping out local Naperville people and helping to create the foundation of the town you see today.
Rita Harvard was involved in the family business from the age of 12, selling milk and serving ice cream at one of the business outlets. Rita attended Naperville High School and, like so many young people, was ready to get out of town. She attended Monmouth College, earned a teaching degree and spent two years in Dixon, Illinois teaching 5th grade.But, again, like so many people, Naperville drew Rita back home where she began to raise her family.
Even while she was bringing up her children, Rita had a hand in the family business and in the development of Naperville. In both her business dealings and her volunteer work, Rita got the hard jobs. When she went back to work full time, it was her job to work on a design for the new Cock Robin stores. It was her job to handle the management of the stores and later on, it was her job to handle the sales of the stores … all except one.
When it came time to take over the downtown Christmas tree lighting from the Jaycees, Rita was asked to head up the fundraising and operations. When it was decided that the downtown needed banners to hang, they asked Rita to get it done. When the downtown businesses were in need of restoration, they asked Rita to go door to door to convince business owners to do that. When it became evident the Rotary Club needed some female blood, Rita was one of the first women to sign up. When the City was getting some bad press, it was Rita who was hard at work creating the first spirit campaign to accentuate Naperville’s many positive attributes, and help make people proud to live here.
I am merely scratching the surface of Rita’s gifts to the city, but to stand here and list all the contributions, all the awards, all the efforts would be redundant. Most of the people sitting here today are very well aware of what a dynamic person, what a huge contribution she has made to the City.
But of course, I leave the best until last.; I mentioned earlier that one Cock Robin ice cream store remained unsold. The family just couldn’t bear to sell the original — the one right here in downtown Naperville. Eventually, Rita and her family decided that the City needed a memorial to two of it’s most active residents. So Rita and her brother, Ted, decided to donate the land of the last remaining Cock Robin store to the City of Naperville to be made into Grace and Walter Fredenhagen Park, the beginning of the Riverwalk extension and a gateway to North Central College.
This extraordinarily generous gift to the City is so much more than a piece of land.It is downtown vitality. It is yet another jewel in Naperville’s already glistening crown. It is what makes people visit, shop, stay, live and grow here. It is a testament to everything Rita and her family has done through the years.