Joseph Caverly was born on a farm in Waverly, New York, in 1922. As a child he had severe asthma and was quite sickly, but he was not lacking in ambition. In third grade, when asked, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" He replied, "Be a football coach and replace Knute Rockney at Notre Dame." The closest he came to being a famous coach was to throw out the ball on opening day of the baseball season for the San Francisco Giants in 1970!
He enrolled at Ithaca College, New York, majoring in Physical Education, but interrupted his studies to enlist in the US Navy in 1943 where he was a physical fitness instructor. By the end of his time in the Navy, Caverly had been appointed Director of Physical Training and Recreation Programs at the San Diego Naval Base. After he War, he returned to Ithaca and graduated with a degree in Physical Education in 1946.
After completing college, Joe was hired as Recreation Director for Hudson Falls, New York. One of his major accomplishments there was the construction of a teen center. The Center was funded by donations and contributions from the community, decorated by teens, and the programs were planned and organized by teens.
Caverly's good work with teens at Hudson Falls resulted in him being hired as Executive Director of the Geneva Youth Bureau, in Geneva, New York in 1949. Again, he involved youth in shaping their own center. Governor Dewey accepted an invitation to formally open it at a Grand Opening. He also operated 10 city playgrounds and a summer resident camp for under-privileged children. His friend from college, Marcy Hilgenberg was teaching Physical Education at Geneva High School and also helping at the Teen Center. They were married in 1951 in Geneva, before Joe moved on to become Superintendent of Recreation for the Town of Pelham, New York. Here he organized and operated extensive youth activities in the three villages under his jurisdiction, and also directed adult education and recreation programs. While at Pelham, Caverly completed work for a Masters Degree in Recreation from New York University.
After two years in Pelham, Joe moved in 1953 to become the first Superintendent of Recreation and Parks in the Village of Freeport, New York, on Long Island. In this role, he formulated policies to guide the Department's operation, and oversaw the development of several new projects funded by a $400,000 bond issue for park development.
Caverly's next move in 1957 was to the much larger community of Rochester, New York, first as Superintendent of Recreation and then from 1961-1969 as Director of Recreation and Parks. When he was appointed, a headline in the local newspaper said, "His Job Won’t Be an Easy One." The article went on to note that many in Rochester "feel that the city's playground and recreation program has left much to be desired. A number of the workers are active in partisan politics, or are relatives of political figures. Some tell of getting their jobs through ward leaders. At some playgrounds, workers repeatedly arrive on their jobs late, are absent for long periods during the day, and go home early."
Hence, the major challenge at Rochester was to remove the entrenched political patronage system of hiring staff who were unqualified. Joe recruited experienced, qualified staff, developed in-service training programs, and refuted the patronage system. A segment in the City Charter referred to "providing for the safety of children" and Caverly suggested to elected officials that if they did not allow him to hire qualified people, they would be in violation of the Charter. Caverly helped write a Civil Service exam for recreation leaders and in this way removed much of the patronage hiring from the system. A comprehensive plan was developed and a major reorganization implemented which resulted in extensive expansion of facilities and programs in Rochester.
When Caverly arrived at Rochester, there was no modern equipment; not one school open for use; and most of the buildings were dilapidated. When he resigned 12 years later, every piece of property had been revamped, every school's facilities were used by the recreation department, and qualified staff had been hired. A lead editorial in the Rochester newspaper stated: "Caverly’s departure represents a serious loss to this community. In his 12 years as director, he has transformed the recreation program from a system riddled with politics, patronage, inefficiency and lack of facilities into a smoothly run, professionally staffed, innovative operation."
He left Rochester to become General Manager of the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department which had over 1000 employees. At San Francisco, Caverly again found a deteriorating system characterized by an overextension of staff and equipment. Facilities had been added without budget and personnel support, so the system had deteriorated.
Caverly's first major act in San Francisco was to establish a committee comprised of top executives from San Francisco's business community to examine all facets of the Department's operations and make recommendations for improvements. The business community underwrote the cost of a Plan for Action and assigned ten senior executives to work full-time on it for six months. These individuals formed task forces in the areas of park maintenance, fiscal procedures, and organization and management. This provided the blueprint, which guided Caverly's actions during his six-year tenure at San Francisco.
Among his innovations were an automated watering system in the parks; a complete reorganization of the department; supervision of the completion of construction of Candlestick Park, home of San Francisco’s NFL and MLB teams; construction of 24 mini-parks, development of a bicycle path network and renovation of numerous neighborhood parks; establishment of a park police unit; development of a vibrant Friends of Recreation and Parks support organization; and upgrading of the San Francisco Zoo. At the end of his stay in San Francisco, the Mayor in a press interview declared, "He has done an outstanding job with our great parks system. During Joe Caverly's six years as general manager, he has made the Recreation and Park Department perhaps the finest in the country."
The final chapter of Joe's full-time professional career was a return to New York as Commissioner of Westchester County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation. He held this position from 1975 to 1989. At Westchester County, Caverly's leadership followed the pattern that characterized his career- -review and appraisal, reorganization and implementation of substantial improvements. Among the most noticeable improvements were: transformation of the County's five public golf courses which were losing $460,000 per year when he arrived and showing a surplus of $410,000 when he retired; the enhancement of revenue production so self-generated revenues accounted for $13 million of the $20 million operating budget; institution of nature programs in many county parks, sanctuaries and museums; the rejuvenation of the 777 acre Muscoot Park with its museum house and farm related programs; establishment of bike trails; donation of the $5 million Patterson Family Estate; a Friends organization; rejuvenation of Playland, America's first Amusement Park; and the creation of multiple special events and festivals.
Throughout his career, Caverly was prominent in leadership roles in professional organizations. He was chairman and one of the founding members of the Urban Park and Recreation Alliance and chaired many task forces and committees for both NRPA and the New York State Recreation & Park Society.
Joe Caverly's greatest strength was his personality. It accounted for much of the relentless record of success, which characterized his career. His strength was to bring people together: the public and business sector, neighborhood communities, schools and other organizations. Secretary of the Interior, Manuel Lujon, described him as "unwaveringly fair, courteous and friendly," while the Mayor of San Francisco affectionately referred to him as "the genial Irishman from New York." However, this geniality was accompanied by a fortitude, determination, commitment and belief in the field, which were key to surmounting the challenges with which he was confronted at every step in his career.