Just out of college in 1976, Jack Kirk figured he’d spend a couple of years working for the Fridley parks and recreation department, then move on to another job elsewhere. That seemed to be how people advanced in their careers.

Kirk’s story turned out differently. He fell in love with the community, and this month, he marked 37 years with parks and rec, the past 28 as director.

In January, the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association recognized Kirk with its Clifton E. French Distinguished Service Award, its highest honor. The award goes to a member who “has provided long and outstanding service to the parks and recreation field” and to the organization, according to its website.

Last week, we caught up with Kirk for a talk about his career and experiences overseeing Fridley’s 38 parks.

Q: What do you enjoy about this line of work?

A: It’s an opportunity to touch so many lives in many different ways. People can find enjoyment through the facilities that we offer, like the parks, trails, pavilions and ice arenas. But there’s also reward in people using the programs — whether it’s young children in an after-school program or adults in a fitness class or a senior who gets a tremendous amount of joy getting together with three people and playing cards.

I also enjoy interacting with people, which I do on a constant basis. We had a Mardi Gras party recently, with 170 seniors. I dealt cards for blackjack, all with “play money.” They had a blast and I did too. They told me about themselves and where they live and what their kids are doing.

 

Q: Looking back, what do you think your greatest achievement has been?

A: We worked closely with the school district to get the Fridley Community Center developed at a former school. That was back in 1996 and 1997. We needed additional space for senior and teen activities and community organizations that didn’t have a place to meet. The city put $1.5 million into an addition to the building. Fifteen years later, it’s still heavily used, and I envision that it’ll continue to be used in the future.

 

Q: What has been your biggest challenge?

A: The biggest challenge has probably been replacing aging park infrastructure and equipment and trying to provide new amenities with a limited budget. It’s made us look carefully at what our needs are and try to allocate those dollars to have as much positive impact in the community as we can. It’s not easy to say, ‘I’m going to put equipment ‘here’ but not ‘here.’ Not everyone may agree with the decisions that get made, but we’ve tried to be fair and do what’s best for the community.

 

Q: Who are your mentors? Any words of wisdom that have stuck with you in running the parks?

A: Chuck Boudreau was the director when I got here. I learned from him how important it was to develop great relationships with community organizations like the Lions, Jaycees, youth sports associations and others. Once you had those relationships, you could work together on various projects, so more could be accomplished. He really stressed that and I took it to heart.

Our former city manager, Bill Burns, was another mentor. He really sent a clear message to his staff that the city and his department ran in a professional manner. He was very good at communications. He instilled in me how important it was to provide information to the community and the staff, to make sure everyone knew what was going on.

 

Q: How have things evolved in the parks during your tenure?

A: One of the biggest things has to do with the interest in trails for hiking and biking. When Fridley was built back in the ’50s and ’60s, putting in trails for biking and hiking isn’t something that suburban communities did. As society has aged somewhat, more people are walking and biking. People are in tune with the need to keep themselves in good physical condition and having opportunities to exercise. They want to live that healthier lifestyle.

Also, now there’s a lot more emphasis on providing opportunities for adults and those who are moving into retirement. …

In the mid ’70s, girls’ sports in the State High School League were starting to take off. We saw a tremendous amount of growth in girls’ and women’s sports, and that has continued through today.

Over the years, there have been a lot of advances in play equipment and the safety factors that go into consideration.

You used to see more elementary and middle school-aged children gather at the park, making up games, playing amongst themselves at the park. You don’t see that as much as you used to. It could be that kids are in front of a video screen.

People don’t just send their kids to the park by themselves anymore because of concerns for personal safety. It doesn’t mean they’re not using the parks, but now kids usually have a parent with them.

 

Q: A memorable moment? Something big?

A: I was running a girls’ state softball tournament at Community Park in July of 1986. We were getting the teams registered to play. One person who maintained the fields said, ‘I think I’m looking at a tornado.’ I said, ‘It looks like a fire.’ There were no tornado watches or warnings, but it was extremely hot and humid. I called the police department and said, ‘Do we have a weather situation?’

They said no and after I hung up, there was a “v” shape out of the clouds and something that looked like smoke rising from the ground. I called back and said, ‘there’s a tornado forming.’

We made an announcement to teams to come to the building. The tornado spent 15 minutes in Springbrook Nature Center. We had a close view of it, probably closer than we wanted. A helicopter followed it on the way to another story during rush hour. It was one of the most watched tornadoes. We still have an exhibit at Springbrook showing the damage it did. There were 10 heavy wooden picnic tables at the entryway at Springbrook that we never found. We don’t know if they got picked up and dropped into the pond or picked up into the vortex and dropped somewhere else.

 

Q: Do you have a favorite city park?

A: I have two. First, Commons Park because of the variety of activities there throughout the year. It always gives me such a good feeling to see so many people having a great time. It could be a family having a picnic or someone flying a kite or people playing some touch football or someone just enjoying the view, getting some fresh air.

Secondly, the nature center because of its natural beauty. You can go there and get the feeling of the North Woods. You’re walking the trails and it’s an escape from city life even though it’s in the middle of a major metropolitan area.

 

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.