Most locals who frequent the Park District of Forest Park (PDOFP) can spot Ryan Russ from a distance. Unmistakable with his dreads and ever-present smile, the relatively new superintendent of Buildings & Grounds credits where he is in life partly to his own effort and partly to the village that raised him.
Growing up on Hannah Avenue in Forest Park, as a kid the park was the “greatest place on earth.” His first job at the park was pool attendant at the age of 15 in 1991. At 18 he moved over to the maintenance department. Not really on a career path after graduating from high school, he worked several jobs and found himself at the park almost every summer, which allowed him to stay in contact with important mentors.
“My love for this park,” he said, “started when I was a kid coming here with my friends. But the way I feel about it now that I’m 45 was instilled in me by Dave Novak and Larry Piekarz, the two directors I worked under and Larry Buckley who was my boss in the Dept. of Buildings & Grounds. I looked up to those three guys because of their love for this place.”
Most important, they seemed to see potential in him that he couldn’t see in himself. When the foreman position opened in 2011, Buckley called him and asked if he wanted to apply, even though Russ’ work record at the park had been less than sterling.
Piekarz and Buckley both told Russ that if he did the work of foreman well, he had a chance to become superintendent when Buckley retired. By the time Buckley did retire, Jackie Iovinelli was the new executive director of the park, and she decided to name him interim director — interim because both she and Russ himself knew he was not yet ready for prime time.
“She told me,” said Russ, “that there were a lot of things I had to do in order to get where I wanted to go. She laid out what I had to do to earn the promotion, but she added she would be right there with me whenever I needed help.”
Russ’ mom is white. His birth father, whom he did not meet until he was 30, is Black. He was the only person of color in his class until he got to middle school where there were a lot more Black kids. But that didn’t solve his identity problem because the Black kids would say “well, you’re not black” and white kids would say “you’re not white.”
To complicate matters even more, his mother married a man from Iran. “When we would go out together,” Russ remembered, “people would look at us with a ‘what the hell is going on with that family’ stare.”
Once again, someone from his village stepped up. Wayne Buidens, who co-founded Circle Theater in Forest Park, ran a youth theater program, saw talent in Russ and cast him in roles not designed for Black kids.
“Being able to play those roles helped my confidence,” he said. “I became more able to be proud of everything I am.”
Also crucial was the devotion of his Iranian stepfather. “At the time,” said Russ, “I couldn’t figure out why this man who wasn’t my birth father would want to be my dad, but every day of my life he was there for me — money, time, everything. That’s a role model.”
When he graduated from the eighth grade, he listed his name as Ryan Russ Dormeyer Abahi — Dormeyer, his mother’s maiden name and Abahi, his stepfather’s surname.
On his racial identity, he said, “Not identifying is almost as good as identifying. When it comes to my race, I consider myself to be a part of the human race. Why do we have to put people in categories?”
“I’ve been sober for 19 years,” Russ said. “At 25 I was living in my parents’ basement drinking my life away when my parents and Mr. and Mrs. Novak sat me down and said, ‘Listen, something has to change or you’re going to be dead or in jail.’ I had to surrender. That day was my new beginning. That day changed my life.”
He also had other supporters in the community who helped him move forward. Years after he graduated from the middle school, staff members like Jim Murray, the school psychologist, and Assistant Principal Scott Entler helped him “work the program” as people in recovery sometimes say.
Once again, his village was there for him when he needed them.