David 0. Laidlaw (1920- ) received the Pugsley Medal in 1983. He was born and raised in Tecumseh, which was a small community in Michigan. His family traveled regularly to state parks on camping trips. He graduated from Tecumseh High School in 1937 and, except for his military service, stayed in Michigan throughout his working career. Laidlaw recalled, "I decided when I was 14 or 15 that park management was my thing. I was in Boy Scouts and a guide at Fort Mackinac. I wanted to be a National Park Service ranger." He had read a book about the "glamorous" rugged outdoor life of an NPS ranger and became enamored with the idea. Thus, he attended Michigan State University where he earned a B.S. degree in parks and municipal forestry in 1941.
From 1941 to 1946, Laidlaw was a platoon leader in the US Army and a glider pilot in the Army Air Corps. He rose to the rank of major, and in 1945, he graduated from the US Army's Command and General Staff School. His experiences of moving around to different posts in the military convinced Laidlaw that a National Park Service career which would have required frequent relocation was not for him: "I really wasn't interested in a service that moved you every two years."
When he returned from the Pacific Theater in the fall of 1946, Laidlaw was able to use the GI Bill to enroll in a master of public administration program at the University of Michigan. His intent was to supplement what he had learned about natural resources as an undergraduate with administrative skills. For a paper required for a political science class, Laidlaw wrote about a fledgling agency whose roots went back to the late 1920s when a number of public-spirited residents in Ann Arbor, Michigan, organized into a group to preserve the natural beauty of the Huron River in the vicinity of their city. Over the next decade, the horizons, aspirations, and membership of the group broadened as they realized the regional opportunities that could be created by preserving lands all along the Hudson River and then connecting with the lands along the Clinton River. This would provide a system of parks and parkways that would encircle the city of Detroit at distances varying from 25 to 45 miles from it.
After years of promotion , public opinion finally crystallized in an act passed by the state legislature in 1939 to provide for the incorporation of the Huron Clinton Metropolitan Authority, which permitted the counties of Wayne, Washtenaw, Livingston, Oakland, and Macomb to join in a metropolitan district. Its constitutionality was challenged, but in 1942, the state Supreme Court declared it valid. In 1942, a small technical staff was assembled, and work commenced. The vision which created momentum for the agency was extraordinary. One of the first staff members writing in 1943 observed, "The immensity of the program can't help but stir the imagination when the possibilities which exist within the area are considered!"
A majority of Michigan's state parks were located in the north of the state. Over hall of the state's population was in the southeast, but there were few large parks there, and these pioneers envisioned a system which would help rectify this imbalance. Subsequently, the parkways component was dropped because of the high cost of highway construction. Laidlaw noted, "There was recognition that a parkway wasn't recreation, and the interstate freeways made that idea outdated."
There were many county park agencies and a few examples around the country that grew into two county agencies, but nothing like the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority (HCMA), which was created from the beginning as a five-county agency. The Huron flows into Lake Erie and the Clinton into Lake St. Clair, and they encircled the Detroit Metropolitan area. Opportunities to develop parks along the lakes had been foreclosed because the lakes were all bordered with private cottages, and access to them was closed to the public, but the river corridors were still available.
The pioneering leaders had gotten the public excited at the prospect and persuaded the five counties' voters to approve a .25 million property tax in a referendum. The designated tax source proved to be the key to the agency's subsequent success since as the tax base expanded, the resources accruing to the HCMA expanded concomitantly. The intent was that HCMA would provide large resource-oriented parks in the two river valleys which complemented the recreation-oriented, intensely-used parks in the urban communities.
Laidlaw visited with the founders of HCMA while writing his paper, so it became the obvious place for him to go to meet the six-month internship requirement of the degree program. Thus, he interned with the agency's controller and received an excellent grounding in budgeting. In the fall of 1947, Laidlaw became an administrative assistant with HCMA. He completed the degree in 1948 and remained at HCMA for his 38-year career. In the early years there,he was mentored by Charlie DeTurk (Pugsley Medal 1961) who had moved there as public relations director after being required to resign as director of the Indiana state parks system because of a shift in political leadership. DeTurk took him to professional meetings, tutored him in political realities and helped him establish a professional network.
Laidlaw began his tenure with the HCMA before the agency's first park was opened. When the 4,300-acre Kensington Metropark was opened in 1948, it was under the leadership of engineers since they were still constructing it. He was appointed operations supervisor, and in 1950 became the park's superintendent. He remained in that position until 1968, by which time it had become one of the finest recreation areas in the country. The park was formed on partially natural, partially artificial, Kent Lake, and Laidlaw got to shape the undeveloped tract into a park that drew as many people on a single day as the area's legendary Tiger Stadium in nearby Detroit. During his tenure at Kensington, the golf course, toboggan runs, nature center, boat rental service, fishing pier, boat launch ramps, swimming beaches and nature trails were added, making it a premier park facility. Thus, by 1963, on a single Sunday, the park hosted 52,000 visitors. His leadership ability to "blaze a trail" in the parks and recreation field which characterized his career was exemplified by the growth and development of this park which he nurtured during that era.
In 1968, Laidlaw became deputy director of HCMA, and a year later, he was appointed director. During his 16 years as director, the HCMA park acreage increased from 10,000 acres to 21,000 acres, and four new parks were created. At the end of his tenure, there were 13 parks in the system. Almost all of them were over 1,000 acres.
The operating funds of HCMA were based on a quarter-mill property tax (25 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation). The system's expansion outgrew its ability to rely on these funds to operate it, so out of necessity HCMA was one of the agencies who, in the 1970s, pioneered self-generated revenues to fund a major proportion of the agency's operating budget. Laidlaw initiated park entrance charges and looked for revenues from food service, boat rentals, golf courses, and wave pools.
Laidlaw was a student of parks' history as a park professional, and he often pointed out the timelessness of parks:
Basically, metropatks don't change their function dramatically. They're a collection of resources. For example, we have pictures of Belle Isle taken 100 years ago. People went there to walk, ride, canoe, and fish. Today the activities are the same. It's basic. And it's going to be the same 100 years from now. Oh, they may fly there with a jet backpack, but people want to get back to nature, to touch the ground and feel it and smell it.
Laidlaw's leadership skills were evident in his involvement in numerous professional organizations. He was president of four organizations: Michigan Forestry and Park Association, the American Park and Recreation Society, the National Recreation and Park Association, and the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration. One of the long time commissioners of HCMA stated:
Dave Laidlaw was a conscientious, highly respected leader in the field, renowned for his integrity. He was well-liked and respected by all and handled complicated park issues with ease, with employees and visitors alike. He was very efficient and did a fantastic job administering the authority during its busiest growth period. He recognized the need and the urgency of preserving open spaces, through parks, for future generations. He left a legacy of the finest park facilities in the state, if not the nation.
Ilka, D. (1985, January 31). Director of metroparks wraps up 37 year career. Detroit News.
Van Schaack, G. (1943). Metropolitan parks for Detroit. LandscapeArchitecture 24(1), 3-7.