Betty Jo (B.J.) DeLong, who founded DeLong's Inc. with her husband in 1944 and has long championed the project to provide riverfront access at Adrian's Island, died early Sunday at the age of 97.
For the last half-century, DeLong was one of a few key local residents who tenaciously worked through problems associated with bringing riverfront access to Jefferson City residents. Of those early supporters of public access to Adrian's Island, only she lived long enough to see the project start to become reality.
Other longtime supporters included Deborah Cooper, Sam Cook, Betty Weldon and Harry Adrian, who donated the land.
Mayor Carrie Tergin, who has worked as mayor to make the Adrian's Island project a reality, said DeLong was a mentor — someone she aspired to be like.
"I went to the bridge a half hour ago, and the rain wiped away the tears from my eyes," Tergin said. "This was her dream for more than 50 years. But now she has a front-row seat from heaven to see the completion."
Tergin said DeLong didn't just donate money for the project but had the drive and ambition to see it through.
Shortly after being elected to her first term as mayor, Tergin said DeLong pulled her aside at a charitable event, the Council of Clubs Fashion Show, and told her: "I want to get to the riverfront and build this bridge. I know you want to do this. We're going to make it happen."
The local philanthropist donated $3.2 million to the $4.9 million project. While DeLong didn't live to see its completion, set for this fall — she has been integral in the project's planning and has monitored its construction in recent months, despite her deteriorating health.
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The city is building the Bicentennial Bridge, a 12-foot-wide and 830-foot-long span that will wind across the railroad tracks starting at the Veterans Memorial beside the state Capitol and slope down to Adrian's Island. The project will be developed as a 30-acre passive recreation area with trails — made to withstand occasional flooding.
The idea is to essentially link Jefferson City residents to the river from the city's south side. The only other nearby public access to the river is on the north side at Wilson's Serenity Point at Noren Access.
DeLong and her late husband, Joe, originally a blacksmith, started DeLong's Inc., a structural steel fabricator, in Jefferson City in 1944. According to its website, the business makes and delivers steel for railroads, highways, pedestrian bridges and structural steel for buildings, among other things. It has fabricated steel for bridges in 21 states. DeLong's steel is being used to build the Bicentennial Bridge.
The privately held company now is operated by President Joe Delong III, his daughters Morgan and Kelsey DeLong, and General Manager Darren Kelly.
The DeLong family issued a statement Sunday, calling DeLong a "remarkable woman."
"She will truly be missed, but the legacy she's created will live on forever," the statement read. "She was a wonderful mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and business woman. We are so lucky to have such a wonderful role model. We love you BJ."
DeLong's previous civic involvement has included the city's Environmental Quality Commission, Cole County Historical Society and Historic City of Jefferson. Her family said she also was a master gardener who worked toward the beautification of the downtown area.
DeLong was the recipient of multiple awards, including Zonta Club's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.
Family members said she was a trailblazer even back in the late 1950s when she, as a member of the Immaculate Conception Home and School Organization, persuaded the school to let families purchase school uniforms from Herman's Department Store rather than hand-sewing them.
"She was just a wonderful human being because of her character," son Joe DeLong III said. "She knew how to be a true loyal friend. She said, "If you want to have a friend, you have to be a friend.'"
Dulle-Trimble Funeral Home will handle funeral arrangements, which will be posted on its website Tuesday. An obituary is planned for Wednesday's News Tribune.