John VonDeLinde, the county parks and recreation director, recent won national award for his stewardship. He was secretly nominated by his staff.
Among the 11,000 acres that make up Anoka County's park system, the national-award-winning parks director had to choose this picnic table in Bunker Hills Regional Park to conduct an interview?
A bird hovering overhead was apparently feeling territorial, or merely wanted to express an opinion by depositing its thoughts -- plop! -- on the reporter interviewing Parks and Recreation Director John VonDeLinde. While other county officials might have taken great delight in the reporter's misfortune, VonDeLinde was momentarily stunned.
"Gee, that's something I've never seen before," said VonDeLinde, who has been running the county's park system since 1994.
It was probably one of the few happenstances that VonDeLinde, 55, hasn't witnessed in more than 30 years with local parks and recreation departments.
VonDeLinde was recently honored by the National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials with the Fellow Award, presented annually to a park and recreation professional for exemplary performance.
County Commissioner Jim Kordiak describes VonDeLinde a "tireless champion of the county and regional park systems" and applauds his tenacity in pursuing outside funding -- more than $40 million in grants since 1994 -- to expand and improve the parks and their trails.
VonDeLinde's staff thought enough of him to secretly nominate him for the award -- for reasons for which he refuses to claim credit.
The park system has grown from 2,000 to 11,000 acres since his arrival; the regional trail system has expanded from 15 miles in 1994 to its current 45. Park lovers have noticed. The park system that attracted 1.9 million visitors in 1995 has seen the number nearly double -- to 3.4 million visitors last year.
VonDeLinde avoids praise quite easily. He credits his staff, the County Board, a citizens committee and the Metropolitan Council for the comprehensive plan and support that has made the park system the county's jewel.
But he is the person responsible for polishing that jewel. He's affable and assuring. And he's dedicated.
The city kid who grew up visiting national parks just can't get enough of the great outdoors.
Camping across America
The youngest of six kids who grew up in east St. Paul, VonDeLinde camped across the county at an early age; he had visited each of the contiguous 48 states before graduating from Harding High School.
His father, a supervisor at 3M, would save up for four-week vacations, pack the family in the car and travel from one national park to the next. If they were near the Canadian border -- say, at Glacier National Park in Montana -- the VonDeLindes might cross over and visit parks in Canada. From Banff National Park in Alberta to the Grand Canyon, the VonDeLindes tried to see it all. His favorite? The Grand Tetons in Wyoming.
"We did this every year for 12 years," VonDeLinde said. "I never tired of it. I couldn't get enough of the sights and sounds of the natural world."
He'd visit his grandparents in tiny Wright, Minn., about 40 miles southwest of Duluth, in Carlton County. He'd fish and do "kid things" such as break up beaver dams and "get in tune with nature." Long before graduating from high school, VonDeLinde knew he wanted to be a ranger at a national park, or do something in the wildlife field.
He went to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to study natural-resources management, with its hands-on field courses. He began his first job the day after he graduated: Hennepin County hired him to work at the Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park and help get a newly created park-reserve district up and operating. That district evolved into the Three Rivers District, he said.
Diverse park system
He later worked for Wright County, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the city of Eagan, where he still lives. And in 1994, he began his director's position with an Anoka County park system that is now as diverse as any in the state -- from its wetlands and prairie restoration projects to its Chomonix Golf Course and Wargo Nature Center.
A dedicated family man -- he and his wife are the parents of three grown sons and have one grandchild -- VonDeLinde is a diverse conversationalist who can discuss a Duane Allman guitar solo of more than 40 years ago as easily as he can talk about a park trail that will ultimate connect with a Northstar train station. What he doesn't offer are personal tidbits such as the Clifton E. French Award that he received four years ago -- Minnesota's highest award given to parks and recreation officials. Nor does he mention the term he served as president of the Minnesota Recreation and Parks Association.
But he'll say plenty about the park system's nearly three dozen staff members and 300 seasonal employees.
"For me, all of this is very humbling," he said.
"I can't imagine a better place to be."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419