Obituary: Robert Piram shaped vision for St. Paul parks

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 1, 2013 - 7:26 PM

As the longtime leader of the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department, Robert Piram had a simple philosophy: Listen to people and figure out a way to make things better.

Piram lived those words while he built the city’s park system. He was behind the plans that gave rise to the Regional Park system, merged the operations of the Como Zoo and Conservatory and led to the creation of the parks on Harriet and Raspberry islands and others along the Mississippi riverfront.

“He had a huge influence in what we take for granted,” said current Parks Superintendent Mike Hahm. “The decisions he made have stood the test of time, and his body of work is the legacy he leaves. We are still mourning the loss for the Piram family, but we are celebrating what Bob left behind.”

Piram died Sept. 14 at St. Joseph’s Hospital following a long illness. He was 74.

Piram was a lifelong resident of St. Paul. He graduated from Cretin High School and earned his bachelor’s degree from what is now the University of St. Thomas. He played basketball at both schools.

He started at the St. Paul parks department in 1960 as a recreation leader. He later worked as recreation center director and was promoted to the top job when he was just 33. Among his signature initiatives during his 26 years as superintendent were partnerships with the state of Minnesota and others that brought about the regional park system, which includes destination parks such as Como, Phalen and Crosby Farm.

Another of his major accomplishments was orchestrating the merger of the Como Park Zoo and Como Conservatory into a single nonprofit entity. Following the merger, Piram served as co-chairman of the fundraising campaign for the zoo’s visitors center.

Over the years, the campus just off Lexington Parkway near Lake Como has seen many changes, but one thing has remained constant. Admission to the zoo and conservatory has remained free, although donations are accepted at the door.

“One thing he put in legislation is that you can never charge for the zoo,” said Piram’s daughter, Susie Odegard of St. Paul. “He never wanted anybody to say ‘I can’t go because I can’t afford it.’ He felt everybody should be able to experience that with their children.”

While Piram’s footprint in some way is in each of the city’s parks, Hahm said, the 6-foot-5 “gentle giant” might best be remembered for the relationships he built with co-workers.

“The respect he accumulated over time was incredible,” Hahm said. “To do that for that long requires that you have to have sound relationships with the people you work with, with the people of the community and with City Hall.”

In retirement, Piram volunteered with the Capitol Region Watershed District. He served as president of the organization that works to protect and improve the water quality in Ramsey County. He guided the lake management plans for Como, McCarrons, Loeb and Crosby lakes. Every week he’d drive back from the cabin to St. Paul to attend the district meetings, his daughter said.

“He enjoyed community meetings, loved talking to people and hearing what they had to say,” Odegard said. “He’d always say, they are the heart and soul of St. Paul and that is their city. Listen to them. They know what they want to see in their community.”

Besides his daughter, Piram is survived by his wife of 52 years, JoAnn, of St. Paul; a son, Michael, of Eagan; two sisters and six grandchildren.

Services have been held.

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