Former park district director James Sarno, who died August 28 at age 77, is being remembered by Forest Parkers who worked with him as the man responsible for giving new life to the park district.
“He turned the park entirely around, there’s no question about it. It was definitely a before and after, and after was 100 percent better than what was there before,” said former Forest Park Mayor Lorraine Popelka.
Popelka, who still volunteers for the park district, said Sarno used his landscaping background to bring a hands-on approach to the park. “When he started a project, he made sure it was completed… he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.”
Current Park District Executive Director Dave Novak said that Sarno, who served as director from 1965 until 1983, was a mentor to him. “I owe a lot of my practical experience to him ” he was instrumental in getting me more involved in the maintenance end,” said Novak.
According to Novak, Sarno was initially hired as the park district’s superintendent, but his title was changed to director in the 1970s as the district took on responsibility for recreational programs.
One of Sarno’s projects that Novak said stood out to him was the yearly “fish in the swimming pool” program. In late September, once the pool had become too cold for swimming, Sarno would bring in about 650 lbs. of Wisconsin trout, and for a small fee residents could go fishing.
The fish would remain in the pool until late October.
According to an article written by Sarno following the event’s debut, over 500 people came to fish at the pool during the first weekend in 1966.
Novak said the event was discontinued in the mid-1970s when new filters that the district had installed would no longer allow it, but that by then, many other park districts had begun similar programs at their pools.
Sarno also founded the now famous No Gloves softball tournament in 1969, and was inducted into the 16-inch softball hall of fame in 1997. Novak said that Sarno organized the tournament alone for its first five years, and remained involved each year until his retirement.
He was also largely responsible for designing and constructing Forest Park’s softball fields, and later worked on the Windy City Softball Stadium in Bridgeview.
After retiring from the park district, Sarno moved to Scottsdale, Arizona.
Sarno and his wife Rosemarie had three children, Susan Gasber, Angela Sarno and Jeanne Hosler, as well as three grandchildren, James, Jake and Zach. He had seven siblings.