Recipient Biography

James A. Peterson


James A. Peterson was born a Hoosier in Elkhart, Indiana in 1925. After graduation from high school in 1943, Jim enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving a three-year term during WW II.

In 1947, Jim enrolled at Hanover College where he earned “Little All-American Honors” in football during the 1948 and 1949 seasons and graduated in 1950. He immediately enrolled in the Department of Park and Recreation Administration at Indiana University, earning an MS degree in 1951, which kick-started an outstanding career in the park, recreation, and conservation field.

After spending two years as a Recreation Center Director and Senior Recreation Supervisor in the Kansas City, Missouri Department of Recreation, Jim spent the next eight years as the first Superintendent of Recreation in Emporia, Kansas. In 1960, Jim was employed as Superintendent of Recreation in Evansville, Indiana, a joint position between the City of Evansville and the Vanderburgh County School Corporation.

After five years in Evansville, Jim was asked to fill a newly created position between the Cooperative Extension Service at Purdue University as a park and recreation specialist and a professor of parks and recreation at Indiana University. Jim says, “It was the opportunity of a lifetime to work with the Extension Agents in the 92 counties of Indiana in addition to teaching at Indiana University.” This position opened the floodgates for many of Jim’s wonderful adventures around the world and his numerous accomplishments in the park and recreation field.

Dr. Phil Rea, chair emeritus of North Carolina State University’s Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism Management had this to say about Jim’s Cooperative Extension work: “As an extension specialist, Jim provided assistance to all 92 counties, including more than 50 special studies where he guided local leaders in developing park and recreation agencies and assisting them to become eligible for federal matching funds.” Dr. Rea goes on to say,

Jim is a natural leader. He is one of those few individuals whose mere presence raises the bar with his knowledge, diligence, interpersonal skills and intellect. In reviewing Jim’s professional career, it is interesting to note that if he joined a professional group, he would be its leader. Not because he sought the role of leader but because others saw it in him.

Jim has distinguished himself by authoring Recreation Use Of Airport Lands, coauthoring Recreation and Leisure in the Changing Scene, and Risk Management for Park, Recreation, and Leisure Services, now in its 7th edition.

Jim was once asked, “How is it possible to work for two great universities at the same time?” He would answer, “If you love what you are doing, no task is impossible.” It’s obvious that he loved what he was doing.

Jim’s international involvements started when he was asked to chair the Scotland Overseas Study Program for the Park, Recreation and Tourism Studies Department.

Ken Kutska, Executive Director of the International Playground Safety Institute, LLC says,

Jim’s a great role model for our profession. He is the consummate professional who always takes the time to share his professional experiences and knowledge with anyone who asks for his assistance. I remember Jim’s presentations at the Great Lakes Park Institute, in particular his pictorial essays on the status of parks, children’s play, and playground design around the world. I wanted to someday be able to do what he did. Jim was a certified play- ground safety instructor, he wrote the first certified professional safety course syllabus, and served on the examination committee. He served as chair of the National Playground Executive Committee in 2001. Because of what Jim Peterson did in his professional career, I can say I am finally living my dream by doing what Jim did so well.

Dean Tice, director emeritus of the National Recreation and Park Association, says this about Jim: “I have been deeply impressed with his leadership skills, his scholarly teaching, tutoring, and writings on public parks and recreation issues.”

Dean tells this story about Jim:

Many years ago, I recall talking with an Indiana University student about his educational experience. We were discussing the types of courses he was studying and whether he believed he would be prepared to take on a job with a local park and recreation department upon graduation. He assured me he would be ready ‘because he was studying under the best professor at the University.’ I asked him why he felt that way. He replied, ‘My professor worked in the trenches as a park and recreation professional, and he really knows first-hand what he is teaching and talking about in our classroom.’ That response epitomizes the legacy that Jim Peterson has passed on to so many professionals serving our field today.

Ken Winslade, long-time director of parks and recreation in Westminster, British Columbia, and eventual city manager before his retirement, says of Jim:

He is one of the giants in the park, recreation, and conservation movement locally, nationally, and internationally. His successful and distinguished career, his proven record of achievement, accomplishments, and advocacy speaks for itself. Jim has made a very significant contribution toward the growth and development of our profession over his many years of service. He has been one of the truly committed leaders in the parks, recreation and conservation movement and an outstanding mentor to so many of us.

Highlights of Jim’s Career

  • Started the executive development program for park and recreation professionals at Indiana University in 1966 and served as its director for 24 years.
  • Served as president of the Kansas and Indiana Park and Recreation Associations.
  • Inducted into the Kansas Recreation and Park Association’s Hall of Fame (1987).
  • Served two terms as a member of the board of directors of the American Recreation Society.
  • Chaired the Midwest and Great Lakes Regional Councils of NRPA.
  • Program chair for NRPA’s first National Congress in Washington, D.C. in 1966. President  L.B. Johnson was the keynote speaker.
  • Chaired the National Congress in Phoenix, AZ (1980), and is the only person to have served twice in that capacity.
  • Traveled around the world on sabbatical leave for six months in 1973, visiting park and recreation professionals in 19 countries and 45 major cities.
  • Member of the NRPA Board of Trustees (1981-1983) (1995-1998).
  • President of NRPA (1987-1988).
  • Member of NRPA’s committee on the President’s Commission for Americans Outdoors.
  • Charter member of the Hanover College Athletic Hall of Fame.
  • Inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame (1993).
  • Inducted into the Council of Sagamores of the Wabash by Governor Robert D. Orr (October 1988).
  • Appointed and commissioned a Distinguished Hoosier by Governor Evan Bayh (April 1990).
  • Charter member of the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration, and is designated as a “Legend” in the park and recreation field.
  • Co-chaired with Dr. Doug Sessoms the committee to develop the first written examination for certifying park and recreation professionals.
  • Received the National Distinguished Professional Award from NRPA in 1990.
  • Taught a short course at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, for nine summers for the School of Continuing Studies at Indiana University.
  • Named the USA Commissioner to the International Federation of Park and Recreation Administrators representing NRPA and USA professionals (1983-1993).

Post Retirement

  • Served as interim director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District in 1992.
  • Served as interim director of the Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation in 1990. Chaired the personnel committee to locate a new director.
  • Became a senior fellow in the Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands, Indiana University in 1990.
  • Served as a judge for the “America in Bloom” program.
  • Published a children’s book entitled Hood-wrinkle and the Easter Parade.
  • Assisted wife Janice in developing a 30-acre native Indiana tree arboretum and children’s education center (Ferndale House) in Southern Indiana’s Posey County.
  • Gave the Robert W. Crawford Lecture at the NRPA Congress in Houston, TX in 2013.
  • Received the Legend Award from the National Advisory Committee of the Department of Recreation, Park & Tourism Studies at Indiana University in 2013.

Jim Peterson is one of the giants in the park, recreation and conservation movement locally, nationally and internationally. His successful, distinguished career and his proven record of achievements, accomplishments, and advocacy speak for themselves. Jim has made very significant contributions toward the growth and development of the profession throughout his many years of service. [October 2014]