Clifton E. French (1918 - 2006) received the Pugsley Medal in 2005 "for his extraordinary leadership in expanding the Hennepin County Park Reserve District (later renamed the Three Rivers Park District) from 1,400 acres to 24,000 acres during his 21-year tenure as superintendent and in establishing the Twin Cities Metropolitan Regional Park System." French was a native Minnesotan who graduated from Washburn High School in 1936.
After high school, French worked as a coach before becoming an officer in the Army in World War II. His intent was to return to coaching after the war, but while thinking about these issues in the Army, he realized he was more interested in the broader field of recreation services. He made a decision to invest his career in parks and recreation while sitting in a rice field during World War II waiting for the assault on Japan: "They had dropped the bombs and the war was over. It was a remarkable time when the Japanese surrendered. There were millions of men who were to be shipped out of the service wondering what to do. I knew I had a few months to decide, and I chose parks."
He used the GI Bill to attend the University of Minnesota and received bachelor's and master's degrees in recreation leadership in 1948 and 1949, respectively. After graduation, he worked as the first recreation programmer for the East Minneapolis Recreation Association which was a Community Chest nonprofit organization. He led recreation programs for children of all ages from elementary through high school, and taught square dancing to adults. At the same time, he continued to officiate high school sports which he had been doing since leaving high school. In 1953, he was the first instructor in recreation and physical education at the University of Missouri. While doing this, he finished course work and completed the comprehensive exams for a doctorate in the history and philosophy of education but he never completed the dissertation.
He returned to Minnesota and from 1953 to 1955 was the first program director of Coffman Memorial Union at the University of Minnesota before he became the first director of parks and recreation in Edina, Minnesota, a fast growing Minneapolis suburb. Initially, as a one-man department, his job was to start from scratch and provide a varied and balanced recreation program for the people of that community. His achievements in his seven years there were notable examples of excellent planning, development, and administration. During that period, the city developed a new golf course, hockey arena, football and baseball fields and a system of parks.
During that same period of time French was an active proponent of a much-needed metropolitan park system in the Twin Cities area. He served on a Twin Cities Metropolitan Citizens League committee seeking metropolitan park enabling legislation that was eventually enacted in 1955. The Hennepin County Park Reserve District was created in 1957 as a result of that legislation. In 1962, after a nationwide search for its first park superintendent, the district's Board of Commissioners hired French to help build and guide what today is a nationally-recognized park system.
Local newspapers welcomed French's selection for the position. With remarkable prescience one of them stated:
Mr. French brings something additional to the position besides experience and knowledge of the present park system. He is a man of considerable vision...He will be able to visualize the park system as it can exist and as it should be. He knows how to "dream a little"...and in his position, that's an asset.
French's tenure as superintendent spanned a 21-year period until his retirement in 1984. When he was appointed, the fledgling district had 400 acres of parks. At the time of his retirement, this had been expanded to 24,000 acres which included seven large park reserves, several smaller regional parks, a multi-use trail corridor and other special-use facilities in Hennepin and adjoining counties.
Many of the system's acquisitions were the result of French's personal involvement. He later reflected, "I was in the real estate business. I spent many nights and Sundays negotiating with farmers to buy their land and explaining the whole idea of a park system. I went back to meet with them time after time." Property owners were paid fair market value for their land, and were allowed to remain on their farms for five years which give them time to arrange for their futures.
There was opposition from some quarters to the notion of a regional park system. The land in rural areas was being farmed profitably and some resented the land being taken out of production for use as parks. It was a challenge for French to work through these difficulties. But he had a vision of what could be achieved and was effective in communicating it to others. At the time of French's retirement, his philosophy was described in the Congressional Record by Senator Durenberger of Minnesota, in the following terms:
The Hennepin County Park Reserve District was redefining federalism, strengthening private sector initiative and learning to do more with less. In fact, I can't think of a better disciple of any of these causes than Clif French. For years he has fought those who think that the solution to any problem is carrying the bag to and from Washington's grant programs.
French developed an overall plan for the park system which included defining what park reserves and regional parks were intended to be. He observed, "The idea was to protect the reserves, which are wilderness areas close to where people live, on through the generations. They were to be large, at least 1,000 acres but preferably 2,000 acres, within 30 minutes of everybody in the county. I'm happy to say that we have met that definition." He engaged in an active program of restoration of this farmland to forests, marshes, and prairie, making possible the return and perpetuation of native wildlife, and was a staunch advocate for the conservation of natural resources in a fast growing metropolitan area.
Park reserves also had an 80/20 land use policy, meaning that 80 percent of the land was to be maintained in its natural state, while as much as 20 percent could be developed for recreational purposes compatible with the natural environment. The 80/20 split was really the genius of the system. It put the emphasis on passive, ecologically friendly activities, but ensured that amenities for their enjoyment were available.
Another major component of the park system - regional parks - were smaller than the reserves and were developed almost exclusively for outdoor recreation. More than 3 million people visit district facilities each year. Recreation activities include camping, hiking, cross-country skiing, bicycling, horseback riding, nature interpretation, fishing, and swimming. Complementing these activities is a natural resources program dedicated to maintaining the natural beauty of the parklands.
An example of French's exemplary leadership was his influence in the district's participation and development of a Twin Cities regional recreation open space system. In 1974, the Hennepin County Park Reserve District joined six other counties and the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council in advocating legislation empowering the council to plan a regional park system as well as to provide capital financing in the amount of $40 million for acquisition and development of regional parks for the entire region. Believing that by working together, agencies could combine resources for mutual benefit, the district, under French's professional guidance, led the way in establishing significant cooperative agreements with metro area counties and municipalities to achieve a system of regional parks. After the initial $40 million commitment in 1974, over $50 million additional funding was pledged for regional park acquisition and development. Again, much of this was attributable to French's influence and leadership.
French also pushed for renovation of a major dam which today serves as an outstanding Mississippi River recreation area. He led the way for the creation of a two-county Scott-Hennepin Park Board that illustrated how neighboring counties can cooperate in a multi-county approach to system-wide park planning, acquisition, development, and operations. He advanced a far-reaching multi-purpose regional trail corridor for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, horseback riding, and running that stretched over 40 miles while traversing six municipalities in one of the fastest developing areas of the metropolitan area.
Some accused French of adopting a "Cadillac"approach to projects, but French regarded this intended criticism as a compliment saying "People expect, respect and deserve good quality development and operations and maintenance." French was an eternal optimist who always believed the future was bright. His mantra was: "The future is bright. It offers great exciting things. I look forward to the changes that are coming." His upbeat, positive outlook required that the agency always invest in training since he viewed fresh ideas and perspectives as essential for overcoming whatever problems had to be confronted.
The chair of the district's board of commissioners at the time of French's retirement was unequivocal in recognizing that French was primarily responsible for the system which was his legacy. Noting, "it's not often in one's career that you have the opportunity to pay tribute to a legendary person" he went on to state that the system's evolution and growth,
Is directly proportionate to efforts you have made over these two-plus decades in building this county park system into one of the nation's elite. And obviously, this task was not easy. It took a unique individual who could combine the needed foresight and professional philosophy to look at the outdoor recreational needs for both present and future generations, along with the personal dedication and conviction necessary to carry out a plan to meet these needs.
Although the enormity of this assignment may have appeared overbearing and the satisfaction level less than fulfilling at times, the real gratification for your efforts is yet to come. As one generation after another enjoys the beauty of the park system you helped create, you can be well assured that appreciation for your efforts will continue to grow in years ahead.
French's contributions to parks and conservation will long be remembered in the state of Minnesota. His career reflected great personal integrity and timeless dedication to providing a better quality of life for others. An editorial in the June 9, 1984 edition of the Minneapolis Star and Tribute summarized his career well:
Largely because of his efforts, the Hennepin County Park Reserve District has been the leader and model for the development of a comprehensive regional open-space system. He prepares to retire this summer after earning the thanks of the thousands of Twin Citians whose lives have been made more enjoyable by the land he has set aside for their recreational use. Thousands more will be equally grateful in the decades to come.
Throughout his career, French devoted considerable energies to various professional recreation and park organizations, particularly the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association, the National Recreation and Park Association and the Association of County Park and Recreation Officials. He was honored by, and held leadership positions in, all of them.
Earlier in his political career, Senator David Durenberger had been chairman of the Hennepin County Park Reserve District. In the Congressional Record he described French as "a great individual and personal friend." He summarized French's career in the following terms:
Clif French is a successful man. On my office wall words from Ralph Waldo Emerson and his definition of 'success' stare at me. The words read: 'To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave with the world a bit better whether by a healthy child or garden paths or a redeemed social condition, to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.
These words describe Clif French. His 20 years as superintendent of the Hennepin County Park Reserve District and over 30-year career in the field of parks and recreation reflects great personal dedication to providing a better quality of life for everyone in our leisure-oriented society. He is a person whose place in the history of parks and recreation in the State of Minnesota will be long remembered. In Minnesota's park and recreation professional arena, Clif is considered the old timer - the guy who's constantly stirring the pot for the betterment of a higher quality of life for all people. Clif considers that charge of betterment one of the highest callings. His dedication, his drive for excellence, his indefatigable enthusiasm, and his willingness to help others are all synonymous with the name Clif French.
At the time of his retirement, the park board announced that a new 300-acre regional park on Medicine Lake would forever be known as "Clifton E. French Regional Park." The board said that naming a park was a fitting tribute. "It is a strong public statement of tribute to Clif. While there will be other forms of tribute paid to him, only the naming of a park assures that the recognition of Clif and the work he has done will be public and will continue for future generations."