One of the largest park systems in Minnesota began with David Torkildson sitting in the backroom of an Anoka County public works building more than 50 years ago.

He pretty much single-handedly acquired and helped develop most of Anoka County’s 17 parks and conservation areas, said John VonDeLinde, a county parks official.

Most of the county’s parks are on the Mississippi or Rum rivers, Rice Creek or a lake. “That provides unbelievable access to all these beautiful bodies of water where people can swim, fish, kayak and canoe,” VonDeLinde said. “It’s phenomenal. What David created is the envy of other counties in Minnesota.”

Torkildson, of Columbia Heights, died Oct. 23 after suffering a stroke. He was 80.

The Minnesota native was working as a salesman when then-County Commissioner Albert Kordiak first envisioned a park system and tapped Torkildson to make it a reality.

“We had no parks department. No employees. No office. No county car. He started this all by himself,” Kordiak said. “[Torkildson] built the county park system from zero. He did a miraculous job.”

It all began in 1963 when the county transformed an area known as Pecks Woods, where kids went four-wheeling, into Highland Lake Park, later renamed Kordiak County Park, said Torkildson’s daughter, Lynn Torkildson of Fridley. By the time he retired in 1994, her father had overseen the purchase of 8,000 of the 11,500 acres in the county park system.

During the early years, Torkildson mowed park grass, pruned trees and painted outbuildings, his daughter said. As the number of parks grew, so did the department’s payroll and budget. But that didn’t stop Torkildson from helping unclog a toilet, disperse a crowd of rowdy teens partying in a park at 3 a.m. or orchestrate the rescue of a wheelchair user who was stranded in Islands of Peace County Park, Lynn Torkildson said.

“He built the first county golf course from scratch,” Kordiak said. “The grass was 3 feet high, and he cut it and created Chomonix Golf Course. We didn’t have a club house, so he put up a post and added a sign for people to put money in the box, and then they could travel the golf course.”

Over the years, he developed the first generation of park facilities, such as swimming beaches, campgrounds and picnic areas, VonDeLinde said.

The archery facility he opened in the late 1960s is one of the “most well-established and popular” indoor-outdoor archery facilities in the Midwest, VonDeLinde said. And in 1988, he opened the state’s first wave pool, which eventually evolved into Bunker Beach Water Park, he said.

Torkildson often found inspiration for Anoka’s parks during his travels throughout the country with his family, Lynn Torkildson said, flipping through photos of places like San Diego, Galveston, Texas, and Washington, D.C.

“He wanted parks to be for families,” she said. “There were enough parks with ball fields. He wanted to get people closer to nature.”

His successor hopes to carry on that legacy.

“I feel fortunate that I was able to follow in his footsteps and pick up where he left off,” VonDeLinde said. “What I’ve been able to do is finish up some of the original dreams that they had for land acquisition and improve the parks and facilities. But none of that would have happened if we didn’t have the land that he acquired. That was his legacy.”

Torkildson was preceded in death by his wife, Anita. In addition to his daughter, Lynn, he is survived by three sisters, Lois Hendrickson, Anita Kaster and Carol Score, and a brother, Paul Torkildson.

Services have been held.