The Hub of Activity

The Hub of Activity

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The Aberdeen Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Department brings out the fun in every season

What makes Aberdeen different from Any Town, USA? Visitors might say it’s our big attractions like Wylie Park or Storybook Land. And if you call Aberdeen home, how you spend your free time will most likely influence your answer. 

Do you take art, dance, or music lessons? Cruise the bike trails by foot or two wheels? Does anyone in your family participate in a sport; tennis, hockey, soccer, or baseball? Everyone has at least once pulled on a pair of skates and tested their balance on an ice rink in the winter, or tried to beat the heat in the lazy river at the Aquatic Center in the summer.

While there are hundreds of ways to have fun in the Hub City, without a doubt at least one of your favorite Aberdeen attractions is here because of the people at the Aberdeen Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Department. Three of the department’s leaders, Doug Johnson, Gene Morsching, and David Eckert, have over 100 years of combined experience in putting together facilities and programs that make Aberdeen both a great place to visit and call home. 

Patient and Dedicated Leadership

This summer, Doug Johnson celebrated his 38th year with Aberdeen Parks & Rec. He has been the department’s director since February 1982, and before that was the park superintendent for nearly two years. Growing up on a farm just north of Vermillion, he attended a one-room country school through the 8th grade before graduating from Vermillion High School, and earning a degree in park management at SDSU. His first job out of college was a park and rec supervisor position in a Douglas, Arizona, a town right on the border with Mexico. His wife is also from the Vermillion area, and after living out of state for three years, they were both looking to move back to the Midwest. Doug says, “When a park superintendent position opened in Aberdeen in June 1980, I applied for the job and was fortunate enough to get hired.”

No two days on the job are exactly alike, which is something Doug values about his work. While each one of the four seasons creates a shift in focus, budget administration and planning are two tasks that take a considerable amount of his time year round. The many programs, facilities, and activities operated by Parks & Rec are developed using master plans. Currently they are just beginning to update their master plans for the city’s trail system, the ARCC, and Wylie Park, along with working on a renovation plan for Lee Park Golf Course, and continuing to make improvements at the Kuhnert Arboretum, to name a few. About the constant planning, Doug says, “It’s ongoing and it takes time, but that’s the part of the job that I enjoy is helping formulate the plans, and then once those are complete, working on ways to implement them and secure the funding that’s necessary for them to become reality.” 

Over time, Doug has learned that taking a big project from an idea to completion requires patience, and a little bit of persistence. “We’ve realized that even with a good plan, we’re not going to get all the things we want done in one project. We have to phase it and do things in smaller steps.” With so many ideas floating around, Parks & Rec pinpoints their priorities through surveys sent out to the community, public meetings, and the help of park board and city council members. “We find out what the public thinks is important for Aberdeen, and match that up with our funding sources.”

When asked what are some of his favorite accomplishments that Parks & Rec has achieved over the years, Doug jokes, “When you’ve been here this long you have to have some accomplishments, or you haven’t done a very good job.” But a few specific things do come to mind, one being Wylie Park. In 1990, voters in Aberdeen approved a 1% sales tax that went directly to Wylie Park improvements. Thanks to that increase, the following year they were able to spend $2 million on major updates to the park. Doug says, “Without that funding source I don’t think we’d have the nice park that we do today.” He also sites the many additions to Storybook Land that have been made over the years, replacing the city’s old pools with the Aquatic Center, moving the ARCC into the old Central High School, and adding 32 miles of public trails as some of the things he is proud to have seen achieved in Aberdeen. 

Doug concludes that the most rewarding part of these efforts is getting to build partnerships with other organizations in town, along with seeing families out and about taking advantage of the activities offered by Parks & Rec. “I’ve enjoyed my time here in Aberdeen. It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been this many years.”

Aberdeen’s School for the Arts

David Eckert’s plans to make a living singing in the opera didn’t quite work out the way he thought, but his position as supervisor at the Aberdeen Recreation and Cultural Center turned out to be a better gig. With a voice full of enthusiasm for the facility and its programs, he sums up his 35 plus years with the ARCC by saying, “This has been an amazing place to work. I love this job.” 

A Winner native, David first moved to Aberdeen to pursue a degree in music education at NSU. After graduation, he spent the summer using his voice major to sing opera. It was at an opera festival, where he had registered in the pre-professional division, that he started thinking about changing his course. He was the youngest person in his division, and saw a lot of other singers in the their late 20s and 30s who were trying to make it, bringing the term “starving artist” to mind. So he came back to Aberdeen and studied for his master’s degree, and soon discovered that what he really wanted to do was be involved in arts administration. During the last week of finals he started his position at the ARCC. “I told myself I was going to stay at least two years, but not more than five,” he laughs, “but that was over 35 years ago.” 

The ARCC provides classes in the visual arts, dance, and music, along with hosting theater and literature events. David describes his role as being like “the principal of an art school.” When he was first hired in May 1983, the ARCC held about 100 classes each year. Today, they organize more than 1,500 activities annually. Their classes reach all ages, from 18 month olds and their caregivers to senior citizens and everyone in between. To give an idea of how many people use the ARCC, in 2016 their records showed 44,000 people signed up for activities, and including their events at Storybook Land, they had a total of 84,000 attendees at their activities that same year. 

Currently the ARCC operates out of the former Aberdeen Central High School on Third Avenue SE. This is their third location since opening their doors in 1976, and David acknowledges that acquiring this building in 2004 was a tremendous step that allowed them to grow in to a real community center. They’ve restored some parts of the facility, but as with any older structure, more areas still need improvements and funding these updates can be difficult. David says, “The character of the building is amazing. Even though there’s those challenges, I can’t say enough good things about it and the resource it is in the community.” 

When the ARCC was just getting started, their predominate focus was on the visual arts, especially pottery. David says that while most classes are cyclical in popularity, their pottery classes are the one activity that has remained consistently well-attended over the years. Right now, their largest program is their dance program. When choosing which classes to offer, they consider a variety of factors, including the availability of equipment, resources, and staff. They’ve hired many music, theater, and art students from NSU over the years as their class instructors, but also have been able to train many of their own. Some kids take a bulk of classes at the facility while growing up, earning the endearing term of “ARCClings.” Those students might eventually get hired in high school as assistants for a class, then go on to teach classes in the summer as college students, and finally, as adults with full-time jobs, continue to teach in the evenings. Some instructors, such as those in their dance program, went through the program as students, advanced on for further training, and are now dance instructors themselves. “We’ve really raised up a lot of our own teachers,” David says. 

New Opportunities for Everyone

As the recreation superintendent for Parks & Rec, Gene Morsching says the best part of his job is getting to see area youth trying new activities and finding out they really enjoy something they hadn’t done before. He says, “We get to work with a lot of youth in all kinds of areas, whether that’s through swim lessons, t-ball, tennis lessons, or our Discovery Program. My favorite part is being able to give the kids a chance to explore all these different opportunities.”

Before he started working at Parks & Rec 31 years ago, Gene had a job coaching youth baseball and assisting in legion baseball for a couple of summers while growing up in Huron. He says the parks and recreation director in Huron is who first influenced him to think of his summer job as a possible career. After high school he attended SDSU, but didn’t declare a major right away. “I took a couple of intro to park management classes, and that sort of became the hook that really convinced me to choose this as a profession,” he explains. His first job after earning his degree was the director for the Redfield Parks & Rec Department. He says, “Redfield was a good experience because in a small town you get to do pretty much everything.” In 1987, the position for recreation superintendent opened in Aberdeen, and Gene has held the role ever since. “Through the SD Parks and Rec Association I had gotten to know Doug and the other guys in Aberdeen prior to that, and so when the job became available there it seemed like a great opportunity.”

Gene’s day-to-day depends on the seasons and which special events are happening throughout the department. Many of these big events, such as the Storybook Land Festival, the Haunted Forest, and Winterfest, have become synonymous with Aberdeen. He says, “We’ve created a lot of relationships with other organizations in town to make these events community-wide, routine activities.” Gene also mentions the growth in the programs for two different age groups in Aberdeen as important achievements. One of these is the series of additions at the Senior Center building. They were able to make the facility larger, and in turn host more activities and grow their number of participants. “The senior board has been a fun group to work with,” he says. The other is the creation of more opportunities for teens through the YAPAtorium and Skate Park. There was a lot of community input asking for these types of facilities, and when the ARCC moved to its current location, they had enough space and were able to secure a full-time person dedicated to a teen center. Before the YAPAtorium opened, they had a committee of parents and students who met and tried to do activities, but not an actual place meant just for them. “We’re glad to have been able to accomplish these things that so many people had expressed an interest in.”

When you think of Parks & Rec, it’s easy to focus on all the participants in their programs, but as a kid who grew up working at a parks and rec department, Gene sees its value from another perspective as well. “One of the things we do for Aberdeen, and a fun part of my job, is the amount of people we employ.” Throughout the year, Parks & Rec hires upwards of 400 seasonal employees. Gene explains, “A lot of people have worked for our department over the years. For many of them we are their first job, and sometimes we’ve had an influence on their career path. That’s a significant thing, to be able to work with the youth who work for us and help them grow, and then see them move on and do some really cool things.” // – Jenny Roth