By Tom Holmes
A lifeguard at the pool once asked Larry Piekarz to come down from his office as director of the Park District of Forest Park and deal with a difficult woman. When he arrived, the woman complained that kids with mental disabilities were acting in ways that frightened her child.
When she told Piekarz to ask those young people to leave, he replied, "Ma'am I can't do that. But I can ask you to leave."
That's just one example of how Piekarz has spent his career fighting to include members of the whole community, and represents what Forest Park stands to lose when he retires in October. On February 7, 1989 Piekarz stepped into the role as director of the Park District of Forest Park.
He graduated from Southern Illinois University with a degree in therapeutic recreations and spent several one-year stints at park districts around Chicago before coming to work at Forest Park in 1989, as the superintendent of recreation. Fifteen years later, he became the assistant director, and when Dave Novak left the post in 2006, the park Board named him director.
Now, 29 years later, Piekarz is retiring.
The Board has not yet named his successor, although Piekarz said about 10 people have approached him about the job. They hope to have a new director in place sometime this summer so that Piekarz can help with the transition.
"When I leave, no one will notice that I'm not there anymore," Piekarz joked.
In a way, that's true. Piekarz's style of leadership is to empower staff members to make their own decisions and hold themselves accountable. He never has been a micromanager. Piekarz's enabling direction has energized his staff to expand the number of programs offered by the Park District from six in 1989 to the more than 40 programs and events today.
From the beginning, Piekarz has emphasized a team approach to getting things done. He isn't being modest when he says the whole village should take credit for projects like the new Roos Recreation Center, the All School Picnic and No Gloves Nationals tournament.
"Everything we try doesn't go well, but we're open to trying anything," Piekarz said.
Like restarting and reimaging annual fireworks display, which the Park District cancelled in 2013 over concerns about the increased size of the crowd, cost and security.
After a four year hiatus, Piekarz decided to bring it back. The Fourth of July spectacular was held again at the park with the whole village helping to make the event work. Park staff made the event smaller and cooperated with the village to decrease the amount of marketing done on social media. Police chief Thomas Aftanas put in place a revised plan for security. Issues regarding funding the $20,000 event were addressed by local businesses and residents.
"I love that we got the fireworks back," Piekarz said. "Because, to me, that was a day when everyone in town had a place to come. It was a family event."
Under the leadership of Piekarz, the No Gloves Nationals also evolved from a simple softball tournament to a community event where both local and out-of-town attendees can enjoy food and drinks, swim at the pool and maybe even watch some softball. The 16" Hall of Fame Museum also opened on Piekarz's watch in July 2014. Piekarz said 100 volunteers from the village make the event happen each year.
Piekarz has used that same collaborative leadership style to make the Roos project a reality. He connected with politicians in Springfield and Chicago to get hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money. He worked with the village to secure water for the updated facility.
After 29 years of working with almost everyone whose knocked on his office door, what does Piekarz plan to do when his 29-year stretch ends October 5?
"Travel some, spend time with the grandkids, get a part-time job and bother my wife a lot," he said.