R. Dean Tice: NRPA’s Most-Traveled Executive Director

August 1, 2015, Feature, by Sonia Myrick

R. Dean TiceR. Dean Tice entered the U.S. Army as an enlisted man and retired 40 years later as a Lieutenant General. During his military career, he earned a bachelor’s degree in military science and engineering and an MBA from George Washington University. From 1976 to 1983, Tice served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for personnel policy and force management, directing policy for all Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) programs. When he became the executive director of the National Recreation and Park Association In July 1986, he was already familiar with the association and its challenges because he had been serving on its board of trustees as the armed services representative. Tice was the most-traveled NRPA executive director, making appearances in all 50 states to promote the benefits of parks and recreation. He testified before Congress, met with U.S. presidents and White House officials, established the association’s international presence through protocol agreements with seven nations, and established standards and business practices that enabled the organization to acquire and better allocate financial resources to support its goals.

Parks and Recreation magazine: Tell us about one of the most memorable moments of your career related to NRPA.

R. Dean Tice: Our NRPA Congress in Phoenix in 2000 was the first time we got all the old-timers together to reflect back on where we’ve come. The achievements of the national organization are great, especially in fulfilling its mission of trying to bring recreation and park opportunities to all people in the country. There’s no other organization that really promotes having fun, staying healthy and caring about one another like the National Recreation and Park Association.

P&R: What do you feel is the greatest accomplishment of your career?

Tice: For the 15 years that I was the executive director, we grew NRPA into a financially stable organization. As a result, we more than doubled the educational opportunities for our members. In addition, we were able to build and maintain a permanent headquarters, The Ahrens National Recreation and Park Institute. 

P&R: What do you feel is the most impactful change that’s taken place in the parks and recreation field during the past 50 years?

Tice: I’d say the biggest change occurred after WWII when everybody was coming home and the country was getting back on its feet. During the war years, the country’s focus was on fighting and winning the war, and suddenly, the war ended and people began to take a look at what we could do to better the lives of the people who live here. Parks and recreation played and awfully big part in forming the kind of communities that we all look to today as wholesome places to live. 

[The merger that resulted in the formation of NRPA] was called a noble experiment, and it really was. It is very noble in what it accomplished and continues to accomplish. I just looked at the June [Parks & Recreation] magazine emphasizing health and wellness. What greater accomplishment can we achieve for our country than to make people do two things: see a reason to be healthy and fit, and appreciate what their community is doing for people who may not have the wherewithal to join a gym or a spa or things like that? Public recreation and parks has a great role to play because we don’t discriminate against anyone, no matter their race or their financial or physical ability. 

Over my 15 years, we worked very hard to assist all people to achieve a healthy, wholesome lifestyle — youngsters, seniors, adults — and those with physical and mental challenges. So much of the population who is physically disabled or has some mental disability is excluded from participating in day-to-day activities. NRPA has therapeutic recreational specialists, people who can reach out and are specially trained to take care of those who have some kind of physical or mental disability, and isn’t that great? So, you have to be proud of what the organization has accomplished. 

Also, don’t forget the idea of bringing the citizen and professional together. That’s really what makes NRPA unique — what we’re trying to accomplish, we do through people. People sometimes ask me what kind of business is NRPA in, and I say “we’re in the people business,” and don’t ever lose sight of that because if you do, you’ll soon be like the dinosaur: you’ll disappear from the Earth.

P&R: What is the most important issue facing the field today?

Tice: I don’t think the political leadership in the country, no matter what party you belong to, has focused enough on creating opportunities for the citizens to have a wholesome lifestyle. I lived in Chicago a couple years and the south side of Chicago is not much different today than it was 40 or 50 years ago. We, NRPA collectively, were way ahead of the power curve before the public at large were on the bandwagon. 

NRPA has played a big role in making communities inclusive —  parks and recreation opportunities for everyone residing in the community regardless of status. Isn’t that great for the country? I came to NRPA with the experience of having been in battle, in wars, and the armed forces really coined R&R — rest and recreation. When you’re in a wartime environment and some soldiers become fatigued and challenged physically and mentally, they can be refreshed by pulling them out of harms way and putting them in a rest and recreational environment. Such a change rebuilds their confidence and will to live. And, if one has the will to live, upon returning to battle you’ll be more concerned about your buddy on your right and left. You won’t give up. That’s why I was so enthusiastic about the importance of NRPA.

P&R: What would you like to see from NRPA in the next 50 years?

Tice: I don’t want them to get sidetracked on a single purpose. What a great opportunity to have the collective wisdom of all the communities around the country — small and big. I would like to see them continue on that path. 

No organization is any greater than its smallest member. If you ever lose sight of what your mission is, then you’re not really accomplishing what the organization was designed to do. A famous quote that Michael Dale always used is that if you’re running an organization and you walk into a room and find you’re the smartest one there, then you haven’t picked the right people, and you better get the hell out. I don’t think you ever ought to forget how the organization got to where it is. The quote we have on [Claude] Ahrens’ bust [at NRPA headquarters], “Leave it better than you found it,” speaks well for the organization and what it stands for. He wanted me to build the headquarters out in Iowa. He offered me 40 acres and said he’d build a building for us. I said, “Claude, we can’t go out there. We gotta be close to Washington. We have a whole political arena to try to be a mouthpiece for the people that are performing our business. We have to have the physical presence here.” 

I get high on NRPA. It has a vital role to play in the future of our nation, the culture and the people, because we have that mission of trying to make people healthier, feel better about themselves and also have fun. Don’t forget fun. 

Sonia Myrick is the Managing Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.