William R. "Bill" Bird (1927-2010) received the Pugsley Medal in 1988. He was born in Austin, Texas. When he was in high school, Bird aspired to be a petroleum engineer. However, after high school he served two years in the U.S. Army Paratroopers soon after the end of WWII and was stationed for much of that time in Japan where he became fascinated by the concept of land planning and the emphasis on beauty which he saw in that culture. This piqued his interest in landscape architecture and resulted in him enrolling in the landscape architecture program at Texas A&M University. As a part of the degree course, he was exposed to parks and recreation, and landscape architecture was a discipline for which many park administrators were trained.
When he graduated from A&M in 1951, he was employed for a short time as a landscape architect in San Antonio before being appointed assistant director of parks and recreation with the Wichita Falls, Texas, Parks and Recreation Department. The director of this system was Al LaGasse who was an experienced and respected national leader in the parks field. He proved to be a fine teacher and role model for Bird. The standard work week was five and a half days, and on Saturday afternoons after the official work day was finished, LaGasse frequently shared his ideas, philosophy and knowledge of the field with Bird and other young members of the staff. Among Bird's primary responsibilities in his two years at Wichita Falls was the oversight of the construction program which included establishing irrigation systems in four major parks and the construction of parks and sports facilities in 16 other areas.
In 1954, Bird moved to become director of parks and recreation director for Ector County which embraces the city of Odessa in West Texas. This was a new position created by the county. The department functioned on a city-county basis with a majority of the work being done within the Odessa city limits, since 85% of Ector County's population resided there. When he arrived, there were minimal facilities in the county. Six years later when he left the position, Odessa had a model park system -- four swimming pools; neighborhood parks within walking distance of every resident; three major park areas which contained band shells, picnic facilities for large groups, creative play areas, and major sports centers for organized games; and a city beautification program was well on its way.
His outstanding work in Odessa received wide recognition and he was approached by A.D. Barnes (Pugsley Medal 1958) to join the Metropolitan Dade County Park and Recreation Department as superintendent of parks with the expectation that he would succeed Barnes. Bird regarded Barnes as another great leader in the field from whom he learned a great amount. In 1966 he became assistant director, but Barnes gave no indication that he was ready to retire. Thus, Bird was responsive when he was approached by the Graham family, one of the most influential families in Florida, to become senior vice-president of Sengore Development Corporation. Sengore was building a new town, Miami Lakes, which was developed around lakes, parkways, recreation centers and more than 100 mini parks. In retrospect, Bird characterized this as a "sabbatical from the public sector which exposed me to the realities of 'the bottom line', and opportunities to experience a different perspective." Bird never forgot the philosophy of the Graham family which was, "Our goal is not to make as much money as we can. Rather, it is to stay in business as long as we can."
After county voters approved a large bond referendum, the excitement of being able to complete ambitious projects for Metro Dade County lured him back into county government. First, he was appointed director of the massive General Services Department in 1975, and then became director of the Park and Recreation Department in 1977. In his tenure as director, Bird doubled the acreage of the county's public parkland making the Metro-Dade County Park and Recreation Department one of the largest and most opportunity diverse urban park systems in the United States.
In addition to directing a substantial construction and development program, enabling new parks to be dedicated on almost a monthly basis, he completely reinvented the department's revenue producing facilities, demanding that newly generated renvenues be invested back into the park system. His creative approach to proprietary and enterprise operations throughout the park system allowed for growth in an era when most urban park and recreation departments were severely cutting programs and services. He had the ability to combine provision of recreation needs of the community with a strong emphasis on high quality aesthetics. He was especially adept at working with other municipal departments to enhance his parks and recreation agenda.
Perhaps his most stunning achievement was the construction of Metrozoo, a cage-less, zoogeographic environment for animals on 750 acres in South Dade County. The early construction at Metrozoo offers insights into Bird's "can-do" posititve approach to management. The voters had approved $10 million for the first phase of the project, but after the plans were completed and the project was bid, the cost escalated to $52 million. Many people would have concluded that point that the project was "dead". Bird went to work and secured an additional $16 million from other funding sources within and outside Metro Dade government. This was half the needed amount. He reorganized his resources and established an "in-house" construction team to build the project and was able to complete it. Metrozoo rapidly became one of Florida's top tourist attractions and one of the 10 top zoos in the United States. Because the atmosphere is so close to the wild, it became an important international location for breeding some of the world's most endangered species, such as the lowland gorilla.
Bird was criticized by some residents in Dade County for "commercializing" the parks. Given he was receiving no increases in tax support for the system, his response was, "I need to pay for cutting the damn grass." He went on to say in past generations,
People got out of their hot houses and went to the parks to have a picnic under a big shade tree. Picnicking was the main activity of any urban park, now there is just one. If there's picnicking now, it's an ancillary activity for families who come for softball or tennis. we're in competition with TV, air-conditioning, and the backyard pool and the backyard picnic table. I've got to attract people to the parks. You have to give them more than you did in 1940.
A man with a colorful and charismatic personality, Bill Bird was loved and respected by the people who worked for him. He cared for his staff personally and professionally. The organization he built personified his mantra of "team, loyalty, integrity and hard work." His staff were often heard saying: "What are evenings, weekends and holidays for, but to work?!" Bird was quoted as saying: "I'm constantly looking for doers. Start with the right attitude at the top and it will eventually sift down to the lowest level." He believed in on-going training, "Training is like insurance, it protects you from organizational decline." He also had many famous sayings, or "Bird-isms". Examples include: "The best is yet to come!"; "The park needs to sparkle!"; "That's a pregnant idea!"; "If we stop building, we die!"; "we're the damned-ness business conglomerate imaginable"; "Get to work!" and, "Don't waste time swatting boogers in the corner!" [Translation: instead of thinking how something can't be done, think about how it can be done!]. Bird always exuded enthusiasm and excitement. It was an important facet of his managerial effectiveness because it inspired those around him and served as a model for them. Bird observed, "Enthusiasm is catching, you have to infect people with it. That's how I get the best out of my staff. If the top guy is enthusiastic, the rest will be too. If you love what you do, it shows, and I love what I do." He observed, "A key to success is to hire people who are smarter than you and then be sure to listen to them. It's never 'my' department; it is always 'our' department. Loyalty to the staff and respect for their talents is critical. No matter how bad the budget situation, you always stay upbeat and keep looking for alternative ways to get things done. That's part of what make the job exciting; it's what makes it so much fun."
Bird was recognized as a champion of conservation as early as 1965 when he won the Bronze Everly Award, presented to him by Mrs. Lyndon Baines Johnson (Pugsley Medal 2004). During his career, he received a host of awards recognizing his outstanding leadership from national, regional and state organizations. In 1979, 1987, and again in 1992, the Metro Dade department won the prestigious Gold Medal Award for outstanding park and recreation management. Other national awards the department received during his tenure included the National Association of Counties (NACo) Information Officers Award of Excellence, National Arts and Humanities Award, more than 50 NACo Achievement Awards, American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums Awards for captive breeding, American Planning Association Award of Excellence for Park, Recreation and Open Space Planning, and the U.S. Olympic Committee Commendation for Outstanding Service.
When discussing "Bill Bird Day" in Dade County as proclaimed by the Dade County Comission in 1987, Bird was described by a Miami radio personality as a "roll up your sleeves and get it done man". That comment typified the professional career of a man who spent more than 40 years building and managing park and recreation systems in Texas and Florida. On the occasion of his retirement in 1994, Bird indicated that rather than list past accomplishments, awards, commendations or accolades, he was most happy with the knowledge that his work "like that of all park and recreation professionals -- will be around for many years to come; much of a person's success in life is determined by what he leaves behind. What is there better to leave behind than a great park for the people of your community to enjoy in the future?"
Parks and Recreation, October, 1965
"Bill Bird": legends tape from AAPRA
Howard Gregg contributed to the development of this profile.