Webbs Norman prepares for next chapter

Retiring director to chronicle Park District history, complete Sinnissippi Centennial Project

Though retiring Rockford Park District Executive Director Webbs Norman’s 34-year tenure ended June 1, Norman looks forward to beginning some new chapters in his life. Chronicling the Park District’s history will be just one of his new adventures.

The projects are taking him from his office on the first floor to new accommodations on the second or third floor of the Park District’s administration building on Main Street. Norman said he’ll research and write an approximately 150- to 200-page book, which he intends to finish by the Park District’s 100th anniversary in 2009. He will also raise funds and be the guide for Sinnissippi Centennial Project.

According to Norman, he came to the job with an interest in the organization’s past. That interest inspired a video called Common Ground.

“I’ve been a great believer in visual tools,” Norman said.

Although the book will bring the Park District’s history alive with words, Norman said he hopes to accomplish one thing. He said his personal experiences will have an impact on his approach to the book.

“I want to make sure I gain that insight before I sit down to write,” Norman said.

But he plans to review all history about the city of Rockford to capture the relationship among the City of Rockford, schools and Park District.

“We’re all a part of a whole,” Norman said.

He said he wants readers to come away with a better understanding of the role and importance of a park district to a community.

“I come from a belief that any good neighborhood should have a good park,” Norman said.

That belief has helped guide the development of many parks during his time with the district. But Norman said walking through those parks reminds him of “citizens who helped shepherd that park to reality.” He stressed all new parks, facilities and projects have been born from citizen requests.

“The quality of our citizens is absolutely remarkable,” Norman said. “They are our greatest asset.”

He said the Park District tries to involve citizens in the process as much as possible. As recently as May 25, Norman said they helped him dedicate the Loves Park Elementary School park and playground.

According to Norman, the park and playground came to fruition as a result of the parent-teacher organization’s dedication and students who saved money to help pay for the construction project.

“To watch the eyes and listen to the emotion of the kids…was incredibly rewarding,” Norman said.

He also marveled at the thought Magic Waters, the Park District’s water park, is celebrating its 18th year.

“That was a unique facility for this park district to get in,” Norman said.

He said nearly 4.5 million people have visited the park since it opened in 1988.

Since announcing his retirement April 27, Norman said many people have reminded him of and thanked him for his contributions.

“It’s been humbling thus far,” he said. “Those expressions of thanks (are) more than, in a sense, I felt worthy of.”

Norman said he only tried creating an environment that serves the community. He had a simple answer, when asked how he’d react to a park named in his honor.

“It would make me feel good,” Norman said.

But rather than accolades, Norman said he’s dreamed about accomplishing four things. They include being a good husband and father, building a park, planting a tree and writing a book. Norman longs to leave his children and grandchildren with a legacy.

While the book will become his new Park District priority, preparing to leave his post has been his most immediate duty. Norman said he was doing everything possible to make smooth the transition between him and Interim Rockford Park District Executive Director Tim Dimke.

He also stressed his confidence in Dimke’s abilities.

“We grew up together,” Norman said. “We worked as a team. I feel comfortable in stepping down.”

Dimke and Norman started their tenures with the Park District in 1972. Dimke was then a 17-year-old Auburn High School student, who served as a seasonal employee.

Illinois Association of Park Districts’ Executive Director Ted Flickinger has been charged with the responsibility of conducting the search for a new Park District director. Norman said Flickinger is scheduled to report to the Park District board June 13.

According to Norman, he’ll miss most mingling with people. But, he said, working on the book will allow him to keep doing that.

Norman said meeting and greeting people “fuels my energy tank.” But that won’t be his only chance to interact with people. Norman said he was appointed to the Rockford Park District Foundation board.

Norman said he’s joining fellow board members to shepherd the Sinnissippi Centennial Project, which aims to enhance the riverfront at the Sinnissippi complex. Those enhancements include improving the conservatory, lagoon and rose gardens. It also includes constructing new boating facilities and trolley stations. Norman said the board intends to complete the project by 2009.

So besides mining the history of the Park District, Norman will also be asking for others to dig deep with donations to fuel the Sinnissippi project. It is hoped the citizens he is proud of will continue to be a source of pride with their unsolicited donations, so he can have more “field office” meetings to run his history vehicle.

But, he said, those meetings won’t take place on a golf course. Norman said people would, most likely, pay him not to play. He said he’s more comfortable at other venues.

“A good cup of coffee has the same potential as a good game of golf,” he said, referring to the chance for good conversation.

Editor & Publisher Frank Schier contributed to this article.

From the June 14-20, 2006, issue

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