The City of Lawrence, Kansas, Parks and Recreation Department celebrated being a finalist for the NRPA Gold Medal Award Class III category for the third time (1997, 1998 and 2015) with a staff get-together in early October. Although we didn’t achieve the top prize, being a finalist was still worth celebrating. So, when the opportunity to have Jim O’Heir, who played Jerry Gergich on the television show “Parks and Recreation,” visit our department, I knew this was the perfect chance to surprise staff and bring a higher level of fun to our event.
Since most staff was not present when the finalist plaque was presented to our department at the 2015 NRPA Annual Conference, the decision was made to have O’Heir present the plaque to the department. So, as Jerry Gergich from Pawnee, Indiana, Parks and Recreation was introduced, O’Heir walked out from the shadows as the show’s theme song was played. The majority of the staff recognized him and was shocked he was at the event. After the short ceremony, O’Heir graciously posed for selfies, pictures and videos with staff and officials. He even more graciously allowed me to interview him about his visit, the profession of parks and recreation, his memories of interactions with parks and recreation growing up, and his time on the show “Parks and Recreation.”
Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department: When you were asked to drop in and help us celebrate, what was your initial reaction?
Jim O’Heir: When I was contacted, I thought the idea was perfect. All of us on the show have heard from different park and rec departments from all over the country. We’re all big fans of the work they do. One of my best friends has a sister (Sue Chaney) who lives in Lawrence, Kansas. When she heard I was going to be doing a show at The New Theater in Overland Park, she made reservations to come see it and brought her husband Mitch and friend Kathy who, as it turns out, is involved with programs of the Parks and Recreation Department in Lawrence. On their drive home after the show, Mitch pitched the idea of having me show up to a parks department event. Kathy started putting it all together and realized the department was going to receive an award and it would be fun to have me present it.
LPRD: You mentioned it was your first time visiting a park and recreation agency. Reflecting on the time you spent with us, what was your take away?
O‘Heir: I took away how much pride everyone takes in their job. I could tell from all the people I spoke with that they were happy to be bringing such beauty to their community. I’m guessing it’s easy for residents to just take for granted that everything is so perfect, but the employees know how hard they work to make it all come together.
LPRD: You mentioned park and recreation professionals often tell you something that happened on the show was exactly like a situation that happened at their agency. Do you remember any of those conversations and what parts of the show most resonated with them?
O’Heir: I’ve gotten emails and tweets from Parks and Recreation Departments all over the country since the show started. Almost all of them said we nailed it. It seems like most of them can relate to the interactions we portrayed with the local citizens, especially the community meetings. I’m guessing that every town has their own “interesting” citizens who like to make their opinions known.
LPRD: NRPA’s “I’m a Park and Rec Kid!” campaign asks people to reflect on their youth and their interaction with parks and recreation. As a kid, did you participate in park and recreation activities in your hometown? Do you have any memories of your time spent in a parks and recreation program or memories about a particular park?
O’Heir: To be honest, I’m not sure if I had involvement with park and recreation programs specifically. I was involved in Cub Scouts and swam daily at the local pool. Being a kid, I didn’t know who operated these things...I was just happy it was available to me. As far as a particular park, we lived near Lan Oak Park in Lansing, Illinois, and we would go there all the time. As I grew up, it became the hang out with my buddies. We played basketball, swam and just goofed off. I still drive by there every time I’m back home. It’s a place that holds so many memories.
LPRD: What’s your favorite episode of the show? Why?
O’Heir: I have many favorite episodes, so it’s hard to nail down just one. But, I can tell you that early in season two there was an episode called “The Hunting Trip.” The reason it stands out for me is because it was the first episode that we were all together out of the office. We went to a cabin for a hunting trip and of course some terrible things happen. I just loved being with everyone out of the soundstage, and I think it gave us all a chance to get to know each other better. It was the beginning of many years of laughs and love.
LPRD: Anything else you’d like to add?
O’Heir: I would just like to thank you again for including me in your special day. From what I’ve seen, you guys (park and recreation agencies across the country) are working hard and making a huge difference in your communities. You should all be very, very proud.
Roger Steinbrock is with the Marketing Division for the City of Lawrence, Kansas, Parks and Recreation Department.