Helping people play became life’s work

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114668120822628.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jason Carson Wilson’, ‘Retiring Rockford Park District Executive Director Webbs Norman talks about his career and life during a recent interview. Norman leaves his post June 1 after more than 30 years.’);

Webbs Norman retires after 34 years at Park District’s helm

Retiring Rockford Park District Executive Director Webbs Norman, who’s leaving his post June 1, still remembers the organized summer playground program in Morrison, Ill. Norman, as a child, moved to the town of 3,000 people from a farm south of Mount Vernon. Lasting only a summer, that program helped shape the 73-year-old’s future.

“What I’m doing now in my adult life is tied to my childhood dreams,” Norman said.

He discovered the passion to make those dreams a reality in a Huff Gym auditorium on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus in the fall of 1954. Norman said he’d never forget watching Playtown USA.

“I wept when I saw that movie. It was at that moment (that) my life changed,” he said. “I saw everything I wanted to do and didn’t know existed.”

That experience’s profound effect inspired him to try re-launching the program. But former program organizers wouldn’t allow him to use the equipment.

Once more, he longed to get the playground program up and running. After failing again, Norman, a college sophomore, instead served as a Rockford Park District summer playground leader during the summers of 1955 and 1956.

During that time, Norman helped Dr. Allen Sapora complete a Rockford Boys Club’s commissioned feasibility study aimed at gauging support for a tax-supported park district. He recalled working with Sapora on the study at night and being at the playground during the day.

Norman credits Sapora and Charles K. Brightbill, both University of Illinois Leisure Studies professors, with inspiring him.

“They introduced me to my whole life’s work,” he said.

Tangible pieces of their legacy remain, including Sapora Playworld and their namesake—Norman’s firstborn son—Charles Allen Norman.

At that time, Norman said he truly began to realize the importance of parks and recreation. He said unless people have skills and the opportunity to use those skills, they’ll begin acting destructively.

“Learning how to use your free time, in the long term, is just as important as learning to read and write,” Norman said.

He said the Park District has made an effort to convey that message and explained how it’s been disseminated.

“Our business is highly visual. It’s a matter of sharing,” Norman said.

While public support has remained relatively constant, Norman acknowledged varying economic times have affected how much tax support the district received. Therefore, program fees currently account for nearly 40 percent of the Park District’s operating budget, Norman said. Program fees, he said, only accounted for 8 percent of the operating budget in 1972.

“We’re going through a great transition,” he said, adding the income of an average Rockford family has decreased.

But Norman stressed that doesn’t mean children are getting short changed. He said the Park District is committed to serving all Rockford children, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay.

“We’re a public agency,” Norman said.

He said, like other organizations, the park district has a definite purpose.

“Any business exists to fill a need and solve a problem,” Norman said.

Filling one need and solving one problem will always stand out etched in his memory. Norman remembered when former Haskell Elementary School Principal Bob Green sought help from the Park District, Rockford Public Schools District 205 and the federal government to give his students a place to play.

Green wanted to purchase and raze more than 20 homes to build a park.

“You felt like you cut (the excitement) with a knife,” Norman said, when what became the Terry Lee Wells Memorial Park opened in 1974.

Illinois Association of Park Districts’ Executive Director Ted Flickinger praised Norman’s leadership skills. It seems Norman can lead by osmosis.

“If you’re around him for a few minutes, you can see his enthusiasm. It’s contagious,” Flickinger said.

He said Norman has accomplished more than just building a thriving, successful park district. According to Flickinger, Norman’s efforts have helped Rockford become a better community.

But he also said Norman is both a good leader and good man. Flickinger described Norman as someone who’s beyond reproach.

“He’s got some of the best qualities you’re ever going to find,” he said.

Flickinger now faces the challenge of helping the Park District find a new leader. Park District Chief Operating Officer Tim Dimke was tapped to become the Park District’s interim executive director during an April 27 press conference. The Park District Board will take official action on the appointment May 8.

“It’s just amazing,” Dimke said, in response to his appointment

According to Flickinger, he’ll meet with the board to discuss what qualities they’re looking for. He said he hopes that a definite decision is made in the next couple of weeks. The district’s new leader has been part of the organization for as long as his predecessor.

A 17-year-old Dimke—an Auburn High School student—served as a seasonal employee when Norman came on board.

“It’s been a fun journey. It’s kind of a three-dimensional aspect of the last 30 years,” Dimke said.

He described what it’s been like to be in Norman’s shadow.

“I’ve seen someone who could be as consistent and steadfast in his values and principles,” Dimke said.

Though he and Norman started at different levels, they became a good team of sorts, Dimke said.

“We’ve kind of been a good complement to each other,” he said.

Dimke acknowledged Norman’s retirement will have an impact on the district.

“We worked a long time together. It’s going to be quite a change. He’s quite a unique individual,” he said.

Putting his people skills to good use was one of Norman’s greatest accomplishments, Dimke said. “(Norman) never had any original ideas, he was just a good listener,” he said.

Dimke said Norman would put people’s “thoughts, dreams and visions” into action.

Norman’s future includes chronicling the Park District’s past.

“Life is a three-dimensional process: past, present and future,” Norman said.

Editor’s note: Webbs Norman is the greatest leader this community has had in my experience. The length of his tenure is unmatched. His inclusiveness and openness is unmatched. Unlike others, he actually implemented his plans, instead of planning the plan to plan the plan. He has hired and helped great people—the Park District staff is phenomenal.

Our Park District is considered one of the best in the entire nation—the Park District’s golf courses are consistently ranked among the best in the nation, and Sports Illustrated even named Rockford Illinois’ No. 1 sports town after Norman’s Park District submitted the city for consideration. His framework enabled The Discovery Center to be ranked at the top, nationally again, among children’s museums. We have JANE, the dinosaur. Look at the number and variety of parks and facilities he has created. Webbs Norman, as my Aunt Lil used to say about you, I echo—“You’re tops!”

Webbs, when I asked if Tim Dimke were ready and able to take your place, “In his sleep,” you replied. Obviously so, you trained him. And as you also said, “Leadership is proven by how the organization does when the leader is gone.” I am sure Tim will prove you right again. You’ve been a great mentor to many, and I feel privileged and not accomplished enough to say I consider you as one of my mentors.

The whole community should look forward to and support your book about the history of the Park District and the completion of the new Sinnissippi Gardens complex by 2009. You’ve made the Rockford Park District the best thing in this city. God bless you, Webbs Norman, and many thanks from all of us who will enjoy your work for decades to come.

—Frank Schier, editor and publisher

From the May 5-9, 2006, issue

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