In August, Ryan Russ was officially promoted to superintendent of parks of the Park District of Forest Park, a position unoccupied for nearly a year after Larry Buckley retired in September 2019.
Buckley served in the position for 30 years, and since his retirement, longtime park district employee Ryan Russ served as interim superintendent.
In August, he was officially promoted to superintendent of parks, a dream come true for Russ, who was born and raised in town and spent summers as a child playing at the park, then working at the park seasonally before taking on a full-time job in the district. Now, his own kids play and participate in programs at the same park he enjoyed as a child, the place he now oversees as superintendent.
“It’s come full circle for me to grow up in a place and have so many memories and then to be able to provide a place for other people to have those memories, including my own kids,” said Russ.
But while Russ said he’s “immensely proud” of his promotion, in some ways the job title is immaterial.
“It doesn’t matter what the name of the position is for me,” Russ said. “I love to be at that park. If you called me the trash man because I’m out there picking up trash, I’m fine with that, because I’m beautifying the town.”
Buckley was inspirational to Russ in that regard, always making sure the park was a showcase in Forest Park, setting high standards Russ plans to continue.
As superintendent of parks, Russ said he’ll be overseeing the facilities and grounds and related maintenance, from ensuring annual inspections are done to making sure the grass is green.
“Everything that you see, that’s part of the superintendent’s job,” Russ said. “That’s what I love about it, that our work, as a maintenance team, is always on display.” Beautifying the park, said Russ, carries over into the town.
Although Russ grew up playing in the park and attending summer camp there, his job history at the park district began in 1991, when he was a freshman in high school and worked as a pool attendant during the summers. When he turned 18, he switched over to doing maintenance during the summers at the park.
In 2006, after the birth of his son, he realized it was time to find a year-round job, so he stepped away from the park for a few years. But in 2011, there was an opening for maintenance foreman, so he sent in his resume and interviewed. In March 2012, he returned to the park, now full-time, and hasn’t looked back.
Though he spent many years working there, Russ said it wasn’t until the past five years that he actually saw the superintendent of parks position as a possibility. And once he set his mind on it, he worked hard to achieve it. Over the past few years, he’s gotten new accreditations, including certified pool operator. He’s currently pursuing the certified playground inspector designation.
“There’s nothing better than that, when you can go through that process and reach the goal that you set,” Russ said. “That just makes me immensely proud. I love it that my kids get to see that and see how hard I’ve worked and where it’s gotten me.”
Buckley, who passed away in Oct. 2019, wasn’t there for Russ’ promotion, and that was difficult.
“The last few years, where I’ve known that I wanted to fill his position, I’ve always thought of that transition as him passing me the torch, literally, and saying, ‘you’re the next guy.’ I just had that vision, that that’s how it would go down. And when he died, I was devastated by it,” Russ said.
But Russ said he wants to carry on Buckley’s legacy. “Every square inch of that park has him all over it, and I want to have that same effect,” Russ said.
In addition to being influenced by Buckley, Russ said previous executive directors Larry Piekarz and Dave Novak set great examples for him. And he has the utmost respect for the current park staff, including the executive director Jackie Iovinelli.
When she was hired after Piekarz’ retirement, Russ admitted there was some trepidation about a new person starting after such a long time; Piekarz had been director since 2006 and with the park district since 1989.
But right away, Iovinelli “observed and took everything in and really gave us the opportunity to give our input,” said Russ. And then she began to ask questions.
“We’d been stagnant for a while,” said Russ. “To have someone ask questions like that got our mind off kilter and thinking outside of our own box,” which, he said, has been good for the park district. He sees Iovinelli as a strong and competent leader who is always seeking out opportunities and ways to improve the park.
He’s also grateful for Iovinelli’s help on his own path. “She was there to kind of help me through this professionally,” said Russ.
Iovinelli said Russ handled the year as interim superintendent with professionalism, and when it was time to hire a full-time superintendent, the park looked internally first for someone with the experience necessary to run the district. But the process included a formal submission of a resume and a set of interviews, although Iovinelli said she had to get a little creative in figuring out the best way for staff, most of whom have known Russ for years, to interview him in a fresh way that would be effective for them and for him as a professional.
She said they settled on a “speed dating” sort of interview process, during which each full-time staff member spent 20 minutes with Russ asking him all the questions they wanted.
When she decided to hire Russ, she told the park district’s board of directors, who unanimously agreed with her decision.
“I look forward to the great things he’s going to accomplish,” Iovinelli said.
Russ, whose salary as superintendent of parks is $73,000, has a list of goals for the park, including the five-year plan to replace all the standard lighting in the park with LED lighting, which would save the park district considerable money. He’s been talking to some vendors about projects to convert the tennis courts, ball field lights, pool lights, and walkway lights.
He’s been involved in overseeing the work being done on the wall of the administrative building. And when the pocket parks are leased to the park district by the village, redoing them will be on Russ’ list. The spray ground splashpad may be undergoing a remodel, something Russ would be actively involved in.
Russ is also planning to redevelop the maintenance department. Currently, said Russ, the department is split up into custodial/interior workers and outdoor workers. Russ’ goal is to have the roles more fluid, with overall maintenance people who can work both indoors and outdoors.
“Within the next year or year and a half, we’ll definitely be doing some hiring,” Russ said, adding that there’s basically been the same group of maintenance employees for the past nine years, even though the park added the Roos, an entirely new facility. With the possible addition of the pocket parks to the park district’s responsibilities, a bigger department will be necessary.
In all things, though, Russ said he believes in leading by example.
“I would never tell anybody to do something at that park district that I haven’t personally done myself,” said Russ. “Whether it’s unclogging a toilet or picking weeds, you know? No one can ever say, well, you don’t get your hands dirty. Sorry, my hands stay dirty.”