As NRPA reflects over 50 years of serving the parks and recreation community, we can’t help but pause to consider the men and women who left their mark on our still-evolving organization. Roger Brown, who served both as NRPA Southeast regional director and NRPA president in 1982, is one such individual. From his upbringing on a rural Georgia farm to his retirement in 1997, Brown has built a long and storied career as a champion of parks and recreation. In addition to his above credits, he was also instrumental in establishing the North Clackamas Parks and Recreation District in Oregon, served as the International Federation of Parks and Recreation Administration (IFPRA), and along the way, won too many accolades to mention here (although we will make note of his being honored with the prestigious Cornelius Amory Pugsley Medal in 2012). We coaxed Brown out of his springtime reverie in Jamestown, North Carolina, to talk about his life and career.
Parks & Recreation magazine: I understand you grew up on a farm in a relatively rural setting — describe what your relationship to nature and the outdoors was like as a child.
Roger Brown: I grew up on a small South Georgia farm. I was an only child and my dad taught me early on that we had to take care of our land, as it was all that we had. As a small boy, my desire was to be a cowboy! When I was about 12 years of age, hoeing long rows of peanuts on our 110 acres, dad told me that he desperately wanted me to go to college. He said, “This farm can hardly support our family, and it certainly won’t support both of our families after you get married.” Fortunately, I listened to dad and made sure I had grades that would get me into college. By that time, I wanted to be a veterinarian. However, introduction to some science and biology classes in college made me realize that I was not going to be a veterinarian! I eagerly embraced becoming a teacher and coach, falling back on my involvement in baseball and basketball while in high school. I entered the parks and recreation field via the recreation side, and set out to learn as much about the parks side as I could.
P&R: Give us an overview of your time with NRPA — how did you come to be a member of our organization and rise through its ranks, all the way to president in 1982?
Brown: I attended my first national Congress held in Chicago in 1959, along with my good friend, John Davis…We were introduced to the leaders of various national organizations and soaked in everything that was said. [John and I] became members while there.
When I accepted the director of parks and recreation position in Durham, North Carolina, in 1964, I became good friends with Jim Stevens who was on the staff of the North Carolina Recreation Commission. Jim became a member of the NRPA Board of Trustees, and…asked if he could recommend me [for NRPA’s board] to Dr. Sal Preziozo, then NRPA’s executive director. The end result was that I was selected in 1969 to lead the Southern Region’s office in Atlanta. I served for about four-and-a-half years and could not have been happier, but I still longed to be back in local government. I accepted a position in Miami Beach, Florida and became very involved with the American Parks and Recreation Society (APRS). I was asked to be a candidate for the APRS board, was elected and [was later elected] APRS president…At that time, APRS and other units of NRPA had their presidents serve as members of the [NRPA] Board of Trustees. When my three-year term expired, I was asked to assume the role of NRPA president. My rising through the ranks, I hope, was due to my reputation and being lucky enough to have the support of some very key people along the way. I hope I did not let them down in my performance.
P&R: You visited parks all over the world during your time with IFPRA — what’s one experience that stands out from that time?
Brown: In Japan, I visited many very large parks that were once military bases for either the U.S. or Japan. Today, the Japanese people use these parks for every conceivable kind of activity. They have elements that we have never thought of in the U.S. I was very moved to see how they took a very difficult time in our history to turn negatives into positive experiences enjoyed by people of all ages. Every significant park in Japan also has a large Japanese garden. The tranquility and beauty of these gardens are unmatched anywhere else in the world.
P&R: What’s one accomplishment in your career that stands out as particularly rewarding?
Brown: Successfully hosting for NRPA the 1989 IFPRA Congress in Greensboro, North Carolina. This was the first and only time that IFPRA has held a conference in the U.S. Ralph Wilson, a long-term supporter of NRPA and IFPRA, was scheduled to host the Congress. When he became ill in 1985, he asked NRPA to appoint me as his successor, hosting the conference and becoming president of IFPRA. There has not been another IFPRA conference since that had as many attendees or made as much money for IFPRA. For Ralph’s trust in me and for NRPA’s support, I could not have been happier.
P&R: Looking back over the 50-year evolution of NRPA, what are your overall impressions of the organization and its relevance today?
Brown: When one looks back over a period of time, it has been said that, “Those were the Golden Years, and the further back you remember, they were not as golden as you paint them to be.” I can only say that I was there when the merger occurred. For me, it was the best thing that ever happened to our field. Others disagreed. Over the years, I worked hard with Dr. Sal [Preziozo], John Davis, Ralph Wilson, Dean Tice and countless others. Some battles we won; others we lost. I lost sleep over some of the battles. Were they worth it? I thought so at the time, but now, I sleep and let others do the worrying.
P&R: What would you like to see happen during NRPA’s next 50 years?
Brown: Remember, this field and this organization are people- and service-oriented. Don’t forget the people and service by getting caught up in the next new technological development that will distance us even further from those people and services than where we are now.
Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.