When Matt Walsh was elected to the Park District of Forest Park board in 2013, he made news for being, at age 20, the youngest person ever elected to the park board and, for at least a few years, being the youngest park board member in the state of Illinois.
Eight years later, after submitting his resignation from the park board, the focus has rightly shifted to competence and dedication instead of his age.
In his letter Walsh cited his recent promotion to acting village manager of south suburban Homer Glen as the reason for his departure. Added job responsibilities and the long commute made serving actively on the park board impossible.
Cathy McDermott, park board president, said, “Matt has been a valuable member of the team. Not only did he bring diversity to the board as being the youngest person elected to serve, his professional experience as a village planner has been a welcome resource to the board.”
Recognition of his performance began as early as 2016 when he received the Rising Star award from the Illinois Association of Park Districts, an award that recognizes a park commissioner for their work during their first term.
And just recently the Forest Park park board passed a resolution which began with a series of whereases which included words like life-long commitment, thorough, thoughtful and faithful.
In the “now therefore be it resolved” paragraph the board proclaimed, “We do hereby publicly acknowledge and thank Matthew Walsh for his nine years of outstanding contributions and unselfish devotion for the advancement of parks, recreation and leisure in the community of Forest Park.”
“I was motivated to run,” Walsh said, “primarily because of the Roos property. I walked past it every day when I took the train to school, and I would imagine how it could be used by the community,” he said of the derelict old manufacturing building adjacent to the park campus.
He had the satisfaction of seeing what he had imagined take concrete form. The park district’s drawn out acquisition of the property, the demolition of the old Roos factory and the building of the new recreation all happened while he was serving on the board.
He said “it was a joy” to see the return of the Fourth of July celebration and the No Gloves National Tournament. He served as president of the board for a term and until his resignation was serving as the treasurer. In his letter to the board announcing his resignation Walsh listed accomplishments including improving the soccer field, pathway system, skate park and the historic administration building as things he and the board could feel good about.
He said, however, that what he is most proud of is the hiring of Jackie Iovinelli as the district’s executive director. He and John Doss were the two commissioners who served on the search committee to fill the vacancy left when Larry Piekarz retired. The pair recommended her to the whole board. “The board decided to hire Jackie,” he said in conclusion, “and she has been everything we could have asked for in an executive director.
Iovinelli ticked off some of the ways Walsh contributed to the board: joining the National Fitness campaign and building a fitness court; helping secure a grant of $100,000 to complete the Pathway Project; and being instrumental in the decision to lease the village-owned pocket parks which are spread across town.
But perhaps a comment made by Iovinelli reveals both her humility and Walsh’s growing competence. She said, “As a new park district director he was a great mentor. He guided and supported me with honest feedback. Before board meetings he always had well thought out questions that made me think further into discussions. Which only made us as a park district staff better. He has been a great board member and will be missed.”
Walsh deflects credit for the park’s accomplishments by talking about leadership there in terms of a team effort. “The credit for all of these accomplishments should be given to the park district staff. I encourage residents of Forest Park to volunteer at the park, to attend meetings and get involved any way you can. It has been a rewarding experience for me and has helped me develop personally and professionally.
Regarding his decision to resign from the park board, Walsh said, “In April I was promoted to acting village manager for the Village of Homer Glen. This new position has been a significant increase in responsibility and time, and I feel that I can’t properly devote the time to the park district. Between longer hours and a lengthy commute, I needed to make this decision to resign.”
Looking to the future of parks in Forest Park Walsh is optimistic. “The park district is in an outstanding position. I believe the priorities for the board and staff are to improve the newly acquired pocket parks. These parks have been overlooked for decades, and they have a significant amount of potential. I am particularly interested in how 16th Street Park (Reiger Park) is renovated. I spent many days there growing up playing football, baseball and using the playground equipment. The Betsy Ross section of town deserves a proper park, and I’m excited to see the finished product.”
John Doss, the commissioner who served on the search committee for a new director, said of his fellow board member, “Matt always had the best interest of the residents when he made any decisions regarding the park. Such a strong leader, he will be missed. I was honored to serve with him and I’m lucky to call him a friend.”
Roy Sansone, a park commissioner, added, “Matt’s intelligence and dedication to the park will be sorely missed. He’s a good man and it will be difficult to replace him. It’s been a pleasure serving with him the past 8-plus years. I wish Matt all the best whatever the future holds for him.”
Walsh ended his resignation letter to the board with what he called a “teaser.” “Representing Forest Park has become part of my identity,” he wrote, “and I hope to be back serving soon.”
McDermott added to the mystery by saying, “I have no doubt that he will continue to be a friend of the park.”
Walsh’s last regular board meeting was Aug. 19. His final day on the board was Aug. 31.