Frank C. Vaydik (1913-1996) received the Pugsley Medal on two occasions, in 1965 and in 1981. Vaydik was born on July 27, 1913, in Pewamo, Michigan. A first-generation American of Czechoslovakian descent, he did not learn English until he enrolled in grammar school at the age of 10. Yet, he entered high school with students of his own age and graduated with honors. He enrolled at Michigan State University in 1931, unsure of what he wanted to do. He started in forestry, moved to landscape architecture, and finally graduated in December 1935 in horticulture. After graduation, he was hired by the Detroit Zoological Park to enhance and develop the flower beds and plantings at the zoo. He remained there from 1936 to 1942.
In 1942, Vaydik moved to the Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation because he believed it would offer him better opportunities for advancement than would be available to him at the zoo. He started as a laborer in the horticulture area and rose through the ranks to become superintendent of forestry and landscaping. In his position at Detroit, he administrated a successful Dutch elm disease control program which won a national award for the city of Detroit in 1963.
The mayor of Kansas City learned of this success and invited Vaydik: to address the city council on fighting the disease. This led to him being appointed superintendent of the Kansas City Parks Department on January 1, 1964, with a primary mandate to fight the Dutch elm disease. When he arrived in January, he announced that by May, 80,000 trees would be sprayed; 1,000 dead and diseased trees would be removed; and 2,000 seedlings would be purchased. Through strict control programs, he reduced the mortality rate of the elms in metropolitan Kansas City from 10.3% per year in 1963 to 3.7% in 1965. A newly-passed earnings tax provided funds to replace lost trees so by mid-1966, although it was necessary to remove 3,670 elm trees, he
was able to plant 14,000 new trees.
During a period of retrenched city budgets,much maintenance and many capital improvements had been deferred throughout the city before Vaydik arrived, and it was particularly noticeable in the park and boulevard system. Many of Kansas City's famous fountains were broken, did not operate, or only ran for short times each day; boulevard and parkway sidewalks and curbs were crumbling; monuments and statues in public spaces were grimy with the dirt of decades. Thousands of trees on streets, boulevards and in parks had been removed as a result of the Dutch elm disease, but the stumps remained.
Vaydik was an innovator in the movement in the 1960s to beautify and soften the downtown areas of large metropolitan communities. He observed, "People aren't content to live in drab, dirty, uninviting surroundings anymore. We have to clean up." His contributions to downtown beautification included placing grounds maintenance on a 10-day schedule, repairing fountains, sand blasting, and cleaning monuments and statues, removing stumps and planting hundreds of flower beds throughout the city. Prior to Vaydik's arrival in the city, the department maintained 60 flower beds; three years later, there were almost 200 flower beds.
In 1967, Vaydik's title was changed to director of parks and recreation when the city's recreation division was combined with the parks department. He believed strongly that the two areas should be integrated. When he accepted the position in Kansas City, recreation was in the welfare department. Part of his agreement with the city council when he accepted the position as parks director was that they would move recreation into the parks department. This required a charter amendment. When the council placed it on the ballot it was passed by the voters, and the integration was accomplished.
Vaydik was the kind of person who never seemed to stand still. His pep, enthusiasm, boundless energy; and vitality encouraged his staff to do their best for him. He was a big man, 6' 3" and more than 200 pounds. Constantly on the move, he could walk fast and think fast. He was most happy when several things were going on at once. In 1966, he toured the park and boulevard system with a Kansas City Star reporter who wrote: "As he drives his car, one hand seems to be on the wheel and the other in constant motion. More than anything else, Vaydik is a man of action, and his years of park superintendent underscore the point. He is reluctant to speak of the past, but he inherited a system that had been coasting for years." Vaydik offered the following insight into his management style:
I don't consider myself to be a bureaucrat. That is the worst thing you can call me. That means you always do it by the book and by the rules. Sometimes we need to break the rules and be guided by common sense and the need to best serve our citizens. I've been called a czar; and if that means I get things done, then that's o.k.
"Please walk on the grass" was Vaydik's motto. He once said, "When I find a playground where the grass is thick, I want to know what's wrong. It's a sign that no one is using it." He delighted in finding bare spots in parks because it meant people were using them." It's our responsibility to keep (the grass) growing, not the public's," he said. Vaydik was not only concerned with daily maintenance, he also looked to the future. "Park usage hasn't really changed much from 80 years ago when the parks system was founded," he said to a Kansas City Times newspaper reporter in 1972. "We walked in the parks in 1882, and walked or rode horses in 1900. Later, it was the bicycle or car, now bicycles are back." He noted, "Fifty years from now, people will still be picnicking, communing with nature and walking on the grass as they always have." An observer noted, "He buried the city under flowers and dancing fountains made even more impressive by colored lights. As you drove down Ward Parkway, you smiled to yourself when you noticed the little signs, "Shhh the tulips are sleeping.'"
During the 1950s and 60s, thousands of acres of land had been annexed north of the Missouri River. As Vaydik looked at that vast expanse of land, he realized that the park department had no current, overall master plan for the future. Thus, parks staff began work on a master plan, which was published in 1965. lt was an ambitious strategy for expansion of the boulevard park system throughout Kansas City, with an emphasis on the area north of the river. It was not a static, routine plan, but a bold concept to carry the park and boulevard system decades into the future. It envisioned expanding the existing 5,000 acres of municipal park lands to 16,000 acres.
By the end of his tenure he had succeeded in almost doubling the system he inherited to 9,500 acres, and almost 75,000 trees were planted. Two additional 18-hole golf courses were constructed, along with 26 new tennis courts, two major tennis centers and four handball/racquetball courts. A variety of sports playing fields were also built: 55 baseball and softball, 20 football and 12 soccer. One of the most ambitious of Vaydik's new facilities was Heritage Village, a reconstructed 1850s pioneer village whose structures included a working grist mill and a native animal enclosure. Another innovative project was the geodesic museum at Line Creek Park (renamed Frank C.Vaydik Park after his retirement) which was designed to house Hopewell Indian artifacts found on the Hopewell Village site that Vaydik saved from becoming a sewage lagoon. Six nature trails and six new major exhibits were completed at the Kansas City Zoo duringVaydik's years, five major ornamental facilities were built and eight were renovated as a part of the "City of Fountains" program; free roaming areas were established for animals in the zoo; and control was assumed of the World War I Liberty Memorial and Union Cemetery.
In addition to helping expand and improve Kansas City's famous park and boulevard system, Vaydik was a major player in the national effort in 1966 to merge several organizations to form the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). He was the president of the American Institute of Park Executives in 1964-65 and strongly believed there should be a single voice for this field. He also was central to the creation of the Urban Park and Recreation Alliance, the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration, and the Missouri Park and Recreation Association. Among his many leadership positions, he was president of both the American Institute of Park Executives and NRPA.
Frank Vaydik embraced the same expansionist outlook that George Kessler envisioned in his early planning of the Kansas City parks and boulevards system, that was designed so boulevards led from one major park to another. Vaydik observed, "When he [Kessler] conceived the boulevards, he had no idea the automobile was coming, just the horse and buggy. That's what boulevards like Warwick were built for. Today, we want 200-foot minimum for new boulevard widths, setting houses way back from the road, with 10 to 20 feet along the curbs to plant greenery." For Vaydik, success meant spreading this concept across the city and proving that life can indeed be beautiful in those open spaces, "everybody wants trees, grass and a fountain outside where they work."
Frank Vaydik was a strong administrator who was known for his infectious enthusiasm for the field and his frank and forthright approach. He served Kansas City with distinction for 16 years; Detroit for 22 years before that; and was a central figure in formulating several of the field's professional associations. The benefits of his contributions will endure for many generations to come.
Terry R. Dopson contributed to the development of this profile.