Park District Executive Director David Novak announced last week that he will soon step down, ending his 23 years as director and nearly 33 total years with the district.

Novak, who began his tenure in 1974 working as Superintendent of Recreation under the late James Sarno, will retire next Jan. 31, with Assistant Director Larry Piekarz taking over the district’s top spot.

“The thing I’ll miss the most is the softball tournament,” said Novak, who was inducted into the Chicago 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame in 1997. “The last tournament might get a little emotional.”

Novak, a native of North Riverside, has supervised numerous park district projects since becoming director in 1983, including the construction of the Forest Park Aquatic Center, a $3.1 million project undertaken in 1995, and large-scale renovations of the park’s softball and soccer fields.

He has also immersed himself in the Forest Park community outside the park, serving on the Chamber of Commerce board of directors since 1980 and the Main Street Redevelopment Association’s board since 1995. He has also served on the District 91 School Board and the Forest Park Community Education Council.

Novak said he expects the transition following his departure to run smoothly, noting that Piekarz has been with the district for 17 years and is familiar with its day to day operations as well as its current five-year capital improvement plan.

“We have a lot of loyalty and longevity. People tend to stay here for a long time,” he said. He said he is confident that Piekarz will also keep the park’s rich 16-inch softball tradition alive.

“I’m sure that Larry and the board will continue the tradition. Forest Park is on the map for that. I’ve seen people come to the tournament as kids that now bring their kids to the tournament. It’s like a big high school reunion.”

When Piekarz moves up to director, Novak said, the district will likely eliminate the position of assistant director and revive the Superintendent of Recreation position, which was Piekarz original title before the assistant director role was created for him. A new entry level position for a recreation supervisor will also likely be created.

Novak, 55, is retiring through the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund’s (IMRF) Early Retirement Incentive Program (ERI), a program intended to offer savings in personnel costs by providing early retirement incentives to longtime employees. In order to qualify for the program, employees must be at least 50-years-old and have at least 20 years of service behind them.

The cost to the district to participate in the ERI program will be $190,000, according to Novak. Novak will also have to pay a smaller fee to the IMRF, which will be added to its pension fund. Though the district has the option of paying over 10 years, it plans to pay over five instead.

“If I would stay for five more years it would cost them more money to pay my five year salary than to pay a portion of it to IMRF,” said Novak.

Novak, meanwhile, will essentially have five years added to his tenure through the IMRF, receiving the same pension he would have gotten had he retired at age 60 with 38 years experience with the district. His pension will be paid by the IMRF, which receives a portion of the salaries of all members each year in order to later fund their retirement pensions.

By promoting Piekarz at a lower salary than Novak currently earns and eliminating the assistant director position, Novak said that the district will save $54,000 next year. Though the precise savings amounts for the following years cannot yet be determined, Novak said the district expects to replace staff salaries at no more than 80 percent of current salary levels, and the early retirement program is projected to pay for itself within five years.

Novak’s participation in the retirement program was approved by a unanimous vote of the park district’s Board of Commissioners at last week’s board meeting.

Novak said that he looks forward to being able to watch the softball tournament as a spectator for the first time in 33 years, and commented that he will soon be able to enjoy his first non-working 4th of July since the early 1970s.

Though he expects to have more time to devote to fishing, golfing and enjoying the company of his grandchildren, he said he does not plan “to just retire,” stating that he will keep his options open in the future.

“I’ve always seen my job as providing fun and enjoyment for others and having a good time yourself…I’m going to miss it,” he said.

Piekarz, meanwhile, said he is “ecstatic about the promotion, but I’m also happy for Dave…he’s been a mentor for me.”