Recipient Biography

Ronald H. Dodd


Ronald H. Dodd (1941 - ) received the Pugsley Medal in 1991 for his "accomplishments in the administration of local parks and recreation programs in Illinois and Texas, and his dedication to opening park programs to special populations, including people with mental and physical disabilities." Dodd was born and raised in Ottawa (LaSalle County), Illinois. He was involved in sports during his youth, especially cross-country and track, and these interests led to a decision in college to major in political science and physical education. In 1964, he received a BA in these fields from Luther College, located in Decorah, northeast Iowa, which toward the end of his career, and recognized him with its Distinguished Alumnus Award.

During the course of his college career, he changed his mind about becoming a high school track coach and physical education instructor. In his senior year, he saw a poster on a notice board from the National Recreation Association (NRA). It invited people to consider a career in the recreation field and to call Woody Sutherland, an executive of the NRA, for further details. Sutherland directed Dodd to Ray Forsberg who was director of the Recreation and Cultural Arts Department in Waterloo, Iowa. Forsberg invited Dodd to accompany him to Minneapolis to attend the annual Congress in 1965. This was the first year of the merger of five park and recreation organizations, which united to become the National Recreation and Park Association. Forsberg introduced him to a host of people and Dodd interviewed with several agencies for vacant recreation positions.

He accepted a position at Winnetka, Illinois, with Community House, which is a non-profit organization offering a wide range of recreation activities, including a movie theater. After five months there, he was offered a position by the Skokie Park District, Illinois, as director of a teen center, The Back Door. On peak nights it would attract over 1,000 teenagers. The District's proximity to Chicago meant that top rock and roll bands booked into Chicago venues for Saturday and Sunday nights, were sometimes amenable to playing at The Back Door on Friday nights since it was convenient. In addition to the dances, the center offered a wide array of recreation programs, art opportunities and day excursions to places of interest.

In 1967, Dodd returned to his hometown of Ottawa to operate a youth center, and in 1968 accepted an invitation to join the Elmhurst Park District as recreation superintendent. While there, he initiated the STIR program, "Student Training in Recreation," which trained high school students to work in recreation and encouraged them to obtain a degree in the field.

In 1970, he moved to the planned community of Arlington Heights as recreation superintendent for the park district and remained there for seven years. At that time, the community was divided into five geographic areas and each area had a well-equipped community center, outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts and an extensive number of athletic fields associated with it. While at Arlington Heights, he joined with six other professionals in leadership positions in the field in the Chicago area and approached the University of Illinois about offering a master's degree course for them in the Chicago area. Thus, Illinois faculty each week held continuing education classes in the area over several years that led to a master's degree, which Dodd and his colleagues completed.

In 1972, as superintendent of recreation for Arlington Heights Park District, he was noted for his innovation in operational and program service delivery. Along with colleagues from six other park districts, Dodd formed the Northwest Special Recreation Association, with responsibility for providing leisure services for disabled populations.

When he moved in 1976 to become executive director for Park Ridge Recreation and Park District, Illinois, Dodd was instrumental in developing inter-governmental agreements with local school districts. Some years later, the Park Ridge city manager observed, "He did an excellent job for our parks system at a time when they needed his kind of professionalism. Park Districts by their very nature always have people hammering at them, and he did a very fine job of soothing frayed tempers."

When on the NRPA Board of Trustees, he interacted with Jack Robinson who was director of the Dallas system, and in 1982 Robinson recruited him to Dallas as an assistant director. The Dallas department was the 1985 Gold Medal Award winner. At Dallas, Dodd assisted with decentralizing the department. The decentralization divided the city into three zones and he was responsible for one of the three. His region included downtown Dallas and most of the eastern part of the city. It included 106 parks, Fair Park home of the State Fair of Texas and the Cotton Bowl, a 600-acre historic farm, and two lakes with six marinas. He received two innovative project awards from the city of Dallas. When he left Dallas, the director was quoted in the press as saying, "Ron has done a masterful job in managing the most diverse region in our parks system."

From Dallas, he was recruited by the Chicago Park District in 1987 to become its deputy general superintendent. In this position, he was responsible for supervising day-to-day operations and the 2,000 full-time employees at the city’s 563 parks, 238 recreation centers, 87 swimming pools, 31 beaches, several conservatories, Soldier Field (home of the Chicago Bears) and other large specialist facilities, and managing the $120 million budget. When he joined the park district, it was undertaking many of the changes associated with decentralization that Dodd had participated in implementing in Dallas, so from the perspective of Chicago his appointment was a good fit. Thus, the Chicago Tribune noted, "In Dallas he helped set up and run the city's decentralized park system, considered one of the country's finest and a sort of prototype for Chicago."

However, Chicago was a very different context from Dallas! The Tribune observed, "His job here will be gigantic", and the reasons for this were summarized in a Tribune editorial:

The idea may take a little getting used to. The Chicago Park District has picked a professional parks and recreation administrator....This might be considered a novel approach only in Chicago, where parks have been defined as patronage playgrounds and park improvements as favors dispensed directly from headquarters....In Mr. Dodd, the Park District board found the person with the right credentials to get the reform on its way....Reform may be too much for one person. But it does make a difference when that person, for the first time in memory, knows a park from a perk.

Thus, his appointment was lauded in Chicago as the person with the right credentials to reform an ailing park system which had long been criticized for putting politics before professionalism, resulting in low quality service delivery. The Chicago Sun-Times commented "Dodd brings professionalism and experience to the position. His background in parks administration -- including Chicago suburbs, and most recently Dallas -- makes him an excellent leader to guide the makeover of the city's 563 parks."

When a new mayoral administration came into office, Dodd remained in office for a year or so until the reorganization was completed, and then Chicago returned to its previous modus operandus by appointing in his place an individual with no background in the field. Dodd was an advocate of decentralization in both Dallas and Chicago because:

It puts the decision making at lower levels and it gives the public a quicker response to their needs. For example, if a citizens advisory council at a given park wants to organize exercise programs for senior citizens, it would be up to the park supervisor to implement that program. Under the old system, the decision would have been made at park district headquarters.

At Chicago, Dodd almost single-handedly, conceptualized and implemented decentralization by dividing the city into 13 districts and 4 major regional parks, each with a manager. The managers hired for each area were trained to work with leading citizens in their area (park users, local business owners, clergy, artists, neighborhood news media, school principals etc) to gain an understanding of the needs and interests of the people residing in that area. The intent was to provide the park and programmatic opportunities that local people wanted. Previously, these opportunities were determined by the central park district office which sent out instructors for sports programs, craft supplies, etc. that staff at all facilities across the city were required to use.

Dodd concluded his 40-year professional career as executive director of the Joliet Park District in Illinois, which he joined in 1990 and remained in that position until his retirement in 2004. The system at Joliet was old and there was an urgent need to replace much of the infrastructure. However, in 1991, the state's governor sponsored legislation that enforced a tax cap freezing property taxes in five counties around Chicago. Joliet was one of sixteen park districts in the state affected by it.

The freeze included taxes levied to service bonds, so effectively it removed Dodd's ability to propose bond issues to fund the infrastructure improvements. Along with some of the other impaired districts, Dodd lobbied for the restriction to be removed and ultimately in 2003, they were successful. The park district's $15 million operating budget was 70% funded by self-generated revenue. However, for almost the whole of Dodd's tenure at Joliet, he was required to finance infrastructure improvements by fundraising, donations, or non-matching grant funds. Despite the limitations, the task was accomplished and, in addition, a new ice arena and a new athletic complex were opened.

In 1993, Joliet won the National Gold Medal award. Among his other accomplishments at Joliet were the formation of the Joliet Alliance for Youth, which brought thirty-five youth service organizations together to coordinate year-round youth program schedules; initiation of a summer lunch program; development of a Flower Island program which beautified many street corners and small parcels across the city; and the restoration of Bird Haven Greenhouse and Conservatory, which was funded largely by two private donations of $1.5 and $1.3 million which Dodd was primarily responsible for obtaining. Hence, it was appropriate that upon his retirement, the Park District board of commissioners named the Bird Haven's central facility, "The Ronald H. Dodd Showroom." The Bird Haven Greenhouse and Conservatory was built in 1929 and is a regionally recognized facility that hosts over 200,000 visitors annually. When he retired in 2004, the president of the Joliet Park Foundation commented: “You will be greatly missed at the Joliet Park District. Your leadership, hard work, vision and can-do attitude moved the Park District forward. Our Park District, thanks to you, is one of the best in Illinois. You have enjoyed many successes in your career and should feel proud of all your accomplishments.”

Dodd was actively involved in a wide array of professional organizations and was president or chairman of four of them: the Illinois Park and Recreation Association (1979); American Park and Recreation Society (1989); Great Lakes Regional Council (1981); and the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration (1992). The words most frequently used by his peers to describe Dodd were consummate professional, dedicated, and energetic. One colleague described his professionalism as "bordering on obsessive. Having dedicated his life to being a public servant, he has contributed to the popular literature and is an overactive participant in national and state organizations."

In recognition of the department's responsiveness in facilitating the opportunity for Dodd to earn an MS degree, he established a scholarship in the Department of Leisure Studies at the University of Illinois for a student pursuing a master's degree with an emphasis in public parks and recreation.

From 1992, Dodd taught two classes as an adjunct professor at the University of St. Francis located in Joliet in park and recreation administration. When he retired from Joliet Park District, he became a visiting professor at St. Francis.