Recipient Biography

Charles R. Jordan

Charles R. Jordan (1939-2014) received the Pugsley Medal in 1995. He was perhaps the leading evangelist in the parks and recreation field of his time. He was an articulate, passionate visionary who inspired thousands of professionals in the field and citizens in his home community of Portland, Oregon to make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of those around them.
He was born in Texas, but as a young person moved to Palm Springs, California. At 6' 7", he thought he might have a future in basketball and aspired to be a coach. After college he went to work as a recreation leader for the city of Palm Springs in 1961, his hometown, and that launched his influential career in the field.
Jordan received his B.S. from Gonzaga University in education, sociology, and philosophy. He undertook graduate work in education at Loma Linda University, and in public administration at the University of Southern California. He was an officer in the US Army. In 2001, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law degree by the University of Vermont. The citation for that degree in part stated:
You spent the early part of your life in segregated, rural Texas, unable to enjoy the basic freedoms of your white peers. You once said that you could have been bitter, but instead you chose to be better. Indeed, you expanded this personal choice into a move toward changing the landscape of this country. You are a bold and visionary leader in the area of parks and recreation. You broadened the agenda of the environmental movement and land conservation to make it more inclusive to all members of our national community. You are nationally recognized for your refreshing and groundbreaking approach to putting people -- particularly people of color -- at the heart of the American conservation movement.
After becoming assistant to the city manager in Palm Springs, he first moved to Portland, Oregon in 1970 to work on the federal Model Cities Program. With the exception of a five-year period from 1984-89 when he was director of parks and recreation in Austin, Texas, he was a fixture of public life in Portland for the next three decades.
Mayor Neil Goldschmidt supported his appointment to a city council vacancy in 1974, making Jordan the city's first African-American commissioner. Portland council members are elected at-large to serve as both legislators and administrators of city departments. After his appointment, he was elected in 1976 and re-elected in 1980 and 1984. During his ten years as an elected official, Jordan was fire commissioner for two years, police commissioner for five years, and parks commissioner for three years. Through experiences that ranged from responsibilities for senior and youth programs, job training, educational research, and human relations, to the duties of an urban police commissioner, Jordan brought a perspective to parks that has been described as insightful, refreshing, bold and visionary.
Jordan did not seek to avoid controversy. He acted and spoke out for what he believed was right, often knowing he would be subjected to criticism. For example, after being named police commissioner by Mayor Goldschmidt, he faced internal opposition from some sections of the police department. This came to a head in a notorious incident in 1981 when Jordan terminated two officers who tossed dead possums at an African-American owned restaurant, which resulted in a protest march on city hall by enraged officers. A local press editorial commented, "Charles Jordan is far from being an average bureaucrat. For the 10 years between 1974 and 1984, Jordan was the man who repeatedly broke the mold in Portland." Throughout his three decades of prominence in Portland, the press frequently discussed rumors that he would be a candidate for mayor, but he declined to pursue such political aspirations.
In the decade after his return from Austin in 1989, as Portland parks and recreation director, the agency's budget increased from $27.2 million to $62.5 million as he expanded the department's reach into Portland life. The system grew from 283 to 408 employees and from 184 to 228 parks and natural areas. Sunset Magazine observed, "Portland knows how to do parks right," while The Chicago Tribune cited Portland as having "one of the most progressive park systems in the country." He was especially respected in Portland for his ability to bring people together -- to remove territoriality and capricious bureaucratic boundaries. A strength was in forging partnerships and creating collaborations.
Jordan's leadership, however, extended far beyond the boundaries of Portland. He was, perhaps, the most charismatic, convincing speaker in the field, with the ability to hold audiences of all types mesmerized by both message and manner, often while speaking extemporaneously. He had the ability to articulate a vision of the big picture and to interject anecdotes and testimonials that anchored the vision. His larger-than-life personal physical presence, charisma, big warm voice, and ready laugh effectively reinforced the words that would spring from a fierce passion and belief.
On the national stage he was most well-known for his twin passions for the environment and for children, which he explained in the following terms:
John Muir once said, 'When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.' A Chinese proverb reads, 'The time to influence the life of a child is 100 years before it is born.' An African proverb reminds us, 'It takes a whole village to raise a child.'
He consistently challenged those who did not understand the importance of parks and recreation. For example, he pointed out, "I am in the business of crime prevention. I challenge any police department in the country to beat me at crime prevention. We have thousands of young people playing on fields and courts, and when they are with me they are not hurting themselves or anyone else."
To professionals in the field he repeated his mantra, "It is time to do business not as usual." There were two dimensions to his interpretations of this. First, people of color and the economically disadvantaged must be brought into the mainstream. He pointed out, "What people don't understand, they won't value. And what they don't value, they won't protect; what they don't protect, they will lose." The second facet of his mantra was, "The mission of the field is to demonstrate that we are more than just fun and games. Allowing ourselves to be relegated to just fun and games has weakened our competitive position at budget time."
Jordan's commitment to the environmental movement came later in his career as a result of his service as a commissioner on the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors (1985-1987) and subsequently with his involvement as a director and chair of the Conservation Fund. In these roles, he became aware of the centrality of open space, clean air, and clean water to the quality of life. He especially championed the need to expand the national constituency for conservation by recruiting new leaders and greater involvement from minority and low income communities. Indeed, Jordan became the most prominent voice in the environmental movement for broadening its constituency. He announced his retirement as director of the Portland Bureau of Parks and Recreation in 2003, shortly after city voters approved a $49 million levy for parks projects and improvements. Soon after, he was named chairman of the Conservation Fund, where he remained an outspoken and influential voice inthe conservation community.
Jordan's national leadership roles were many. They include: co-chair of the National Park Service's Land and Water Conservation Fund Review Commission; co-chair of the National Committee on "The Use of National Parks" for the 75th Anniversary of the National Park Service; commissioner, President's Commission on Americans Outdoors; chair of the Conservation Fund; board member of the National Park Service Advisory Board; co-chair of the Urban Alliance for Parks and Recreation; committee member (presidential appointment) of the American Heritage Rivers Advisory Committee; member of the National Forest Foundation Board; trustee of the African-American Experience Fund of the National Park Foundation; trustee of the National Recreation and Park Association; and president of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.