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Friends of the Park
Meet My Good Pals ... Robin Williams, Jerry Ford
and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

by Gene Popa

Gangs. Drugs. Alcohol. Apathy. Today's parks and recreation agencies are finding themselves in a state of war with these modem apocalyptic horsemen for the hearts and minds of their residents, particularly teenagers. To combat these enemies, positive weapons must be developed for our arsenals.

If you pay attention to such things, you're aware of just how successful the Take Time For Fun! campaign, featuring former Chicago Bear Mike Singletary, has been. "Samurai Mike," an NFL Hall of Fame sure thing and familiar commercial pitchman, has turned his talents towards promoting our field, with impressive results.

Eager to try new tactics to attract public attention, I began to give serious thought to broadening the concept of celebrity support in regards to my own agency, the Calumet Memorial Park District. Located just south of Chicago, me CMPD administers to four separate and distinct communities. However, whatever their differentiations, there's no denying that all four, just like every other community in Illinois, are at risk.

The benefit, first and foremost, would be to attract the attention of that segment of our population which rarely (if ever) takes advantage of the programs and events offered by the park district. These are the children and adults for whom the park district is, to borrow from Winston Churchill, "A riddle wrapped in an enigma shrouded in mystery." Clearly, new methods are needed to make contact with these "lost souls" and introduce to them just what parks and recreation is all about.

The added bonus, as frivolous as it may seem, would be to enhance the so-called "Cool Factor" of the park. After all, if a number of popular celebrities are publicly supporting us, then we must be pretty cool, no? Trust me, coolness plays a big part in the decision-making of a great number of people, and many of these are the very people we are trying to attract.

My first step was to decide just which notable personalities should be solicited for support. The basic criterion was that they must be a positive role model in today's society.

Thus, no matter how popular they may be at the moment, no one tainted by drugs or criminal scandal unless they had faced the music and publicly repented were even considered.

That gave me an initial working list of several hundred potential supporters. The next step was to acquire their mailing addresses.

A quick trip to the local library procured books full of celebrity addresses; actually, their business offices, as most celebrities are understandably reluctant to give out their home addresses. Regardless, this opened the door to getting this project underway.

Paced with certain budgetary considerations, I pared my list down to a more manageable number (postage does add up) and went to work. I drafted a standard letter, wherein I stated the fundamentals (Who, What, Where, When and Why) as briefly as possible. I made the point of stressing that I was not seeking any commercial endorsement from which I or the park district would benefit financially, nor would I sell, swap, auction, fold, spindle and/or mutilate any donated photographs. All I was requesting was an autographed photo. If it could be personally inscribed to the park district, more's the better. The photos are publicly displayed, with the statement that these individuals supported the work the park dis-

40 Illinois Parks & Recreation January/February 1995

trict was doing in battling the "four horsemen" through healthy recreational activities. I dubbed the program "The Friends of the Park Hall of Fame" and anxiously awaited the responses.

Happily, the first came within a week: Former President Gerald R. Ford. In short order, I began receiving more and more pictures, including actor John Goodman, golfer Nancy Lopez, tennis pro Ivan Lendl, civil rights activist Julian Bond, U.S. Senator John Glenn, filmmaker Spike Lee, TV host David Lettennan, pro wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage, news anchor Connie Chung, Bulls coach Phil Jackson, and several dozen others.

Some were indeed kind enough to personalize their pictures; Mr. Rogers, not astonishingly, was especially thoughtful in his remarks. Matt Greening added an original sketch of his most infamous creation, Bart Simpson, to his picture, along with some personal commentary. Those contributors who were considerate enough to write a personal message received a follow-up letter of thanks from me.

Naturally, in such an undertaking, there are some inevitable disappointments. Many requests were returned to us because the celebrity in question had moved on to an unknown mailing address. One required exorbitant postal remuneration for his contribution. Some went to the trouble of sending us a form letter apologizing for being too flooded with similar requests to comply with ours. Sadly, all too many gave no reply at all.

Some responses were amusing. William F. Buckley didn't send a photo; rather, he autographed a copy of his latest book. In light of this response, I was anxious to write to NASA and General motors and see just what they'd send along.

We had decided to unveil the Friends of the Park Hall of Fame during the first day of our Summer Open Registration, when the maximum amount of people would be at our Recreation Office. A display was built, and beneath each framed photo was a label identifying the celebrity with a brief description of their occupation (Actor, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, etc.).

From the first, the Friends of the Park attracted a great deal of attention and enthusiasm. The local press thought it unique enough to do a feature story. Countless residents commented favorably on the project.

The Friends of the Park Hall of Fame is never-ending. As more and more celebrities contribute, it will continue to grow, and, with any luck, will help attract new participants away from the dangers encircling them. And that's the chance we need.

Gene Popa is a Recreation Supervisor with the Calumet Memorial Park District. If your recreation agency adopts a celebrity-based promotion such as the Friends of the Park, he is eager to hear of the results. You may write to him at 612 Wentworth Ave., Calumet City. IL 60409.

Illinois Parks & Recreation January/February 1995 41

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