When Mary Scheurer started working for the Portland Parks, Recreation and Cemeteries Department in 1978, there were five city parks. Today, there are 15 park and recreation facilities, including the 8-mile, paved Portland Riverwalk trail that encircles the city — an achievement of which Scheurer is most proud. A Portland native, she grew up on a dairy farm and has only moved a half mile down the road from her family home. Her love for her city is evident in the legacy she leaves behind, having just retired after 37 years in the field. Not only was she instrumental in growing Portland’s park and recreation department, but also in mentoring many current officials who got their start there. Fittingly, she received the Portland Area Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year Award on February 8, 2016.
During the course of her career, Scheurer has seen a number of changes. When she first started in the recreations department, she was essentially a one-woman show — programmer, secretary, director — plus she was in charge of parks and cemeteries where she did oversee some employees. Imagine having to create the scheduling for 80 softball teams using a typewriter! For some, this may be difficult to envision since this technology was eclipsed by the personal computer in the 1980s. Ever the innovator, Scheurer welcomed the advent of the personal computer and copier, which helped make her job more manageable, and took to social media, which she says, “is a much easier way to make contact with our participants.”
Not all changes have been for the better, however, as Scheurer points to a marked decrease in the number of house-league teams and a waning interest in team sports in general. “I worked in a city of about 4,000, but we served a school district of about 12,000. We used to have really good in-house youth girls softball and basketball leagues with enough teams to have between four and six teams in each league. Recently, everyone has gone to the travel program. Many of the kids don’t have the money or parents don’t have the time to do travel, but, as a result, we don’t have enough kids to have the local leagues. In addition, the top people who would have been our coaches in those leagues also went to the travel leagues. I feel some kids are getting left out.
“Another change is that more and more people are interested in individual activities like walking and biking and maybe less so in the team concepts because of how hectic our lives are now. This has changed a lot from the old days when a lot of people were on teams — softball, basketball, baseball, etc.”
On the site of a former sawmill, where others saw a vacant lot covered with trees and debris, Scheurer envisioned a park with playground equipment and a pavilion, part of the early stages of a walkable community. Under her leadership, Portland Parks and Recreation was able to acquire 41 acres of abandoned railroad grade in December 1987. “In 1990, I completed a Michigan Department of Natural Resource Recreation bond fund grant for the Development of Joe Tichvon Park, and in 1991, I wrote a Michigan Natural Resource Trust Fund Grant for the initial phase of our Riverwalk trail project. I put in the grant that we were trying to create a safe highway across the community to connect our schools, our parks and our downtown districts using the two rivers and our city as a focal point.
“With our safe highway concept, we were trying to keep the kids off the roads with our bridge underpasses on our major intersections. People on the other side of town could jump on the trail, maybe cross only one road, and get all the way down to the ball fields and never have to cross another road. Fortunately, we owned a lot of floodplain river frontage in the community, which gave us access to a lot of those places. It also happened to be the primary focus of the Natural Resource Trust Fund and the governor’s initiative making funds available to build trails at that time. We did get the city looped in 2010; it was almost a 20-year project in different phases.” Scheurer was also instrumental in creating three additional neighborhood parks that put these resources closer to residents and their homes.
A Rewarding Career
Being able to work your entire career in the community where you were born is a rarity, and for this Scheurer feels very fortunate. “I’ve been able to see many improvements in the community that I was a part of and that generations to come will be able to appreciate and utilize. I truly enjoyed what I was doing at work every day because of the variety. At the beginning, I was working with youth and recreation programs and then writing grants and involved in the development of the projects. Seeing the changes in the community at the ground level and dealing with second-generation people in our programming and the public in general was also rewarding.”
Hard work, dedication and not asking “anybody to do anything that I wouldn’t do” are part of her leadership style. “You can’t come in and be a 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. employee and accomplish what needs to be done. To young professionals, I just try to lead by example and remind them that when you are dealing with the residents of the community, remember we are public servants. I’d also recommend that they consider joining a professional association like NRPA. Anytime you can get networking with other people in your field, whether it’s your local/regional recreation group, your state association, the networking and the resources that are available to you really are an asset in trying to do your job because you don’t have to recreate the wheel.”
Scheurer, who owns a couple hundred wooded acres and loves to be out in nature, plans to spend her retirement working on the farm originally owned by her grandfather.
Sonia Myrickis the Managing Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.