During the 27 years that Wally Conrad was the supervisor at Brooks Park, the once little-used ball field at 7100 N. Harlem was transformed into one of the city's finest recreation facilities. It was Conrad who organized the wide range of activities there--gymnastics, wrestling, boxing, arts and crafts, swimming, softball--which won him the support of two generations of residents of the communities around the park.
But in late September his supervisor, Diane Devereux, unceremoniously transferred him to another park. He didn't want to leave, and he and dozens of residents near Brooks Park complained. Devereux told them her decision was final.
"I don't know why they're doing this to me," says Conrad. "They've given me no explanation. I've given this system my best years. I miss Brooks Park. The kids and residents miss me. What they did to me--it's like taking your life away."
His transfer is one consequence of sweeping ideological and managerial changes at the Park District in the couple years since John Rogers became board president and Forrest Claypool took over as general superintendent. Rogers, president of his own capital-management company, and Claypool, a corporate lawyer, seem devoted to the principles of top-down management and privatization of governmental services. From the outset they've received rave reviews from Park District watchdog groups for cutting waste. During their tenure about 800 positions have been eliminated, as private companies took over trash collection, parking garages, and golf courses, among other things.
Claypool in particular has been singled out for praise by Mayor Daley. And there are rumors that the mayor would like Claypool to oversee the privatization of services at the Board of Education, that local symbol of bureaucratic waste.
But along with the cuts and privatization have come complaints from workers that supervisors have become ruthless and dictatorial, and their behavior has become an issue with the Park District employees' union. Workers say there's no loyalty to those who've given years of service anymore, that loyalty is regarded as a weakness or a sentiment that diverts managers from their tasks. "It's a totally different situation than when Wally and I were coming up," says John Griffin, a retired park supervisor. "It's gone from bad to worse. There's no loyalty. The people who are above park supervisors, I don't think they know what they're doing. All they have is this idea that it's got to be like a business. They don't know about parks."
Unlike Wally Conrad, 63, who's spent much of his life either playing in or managing parks. He was born on the west side and became a star wrestler and a defensive guard on Lane Tech's football team. In the late 40s and early 50s he was a Golden Gloves boxing champion, one of the finest amateur welterweight fighters of his day.
In 1950 he was drafted and sent to Korea, where he saw combat. After he returned from the war he went to work as a supervisor in Kosciuszko Park, at 2732 N. Avers. "I taught wrestling, basketball, gymnastics, boxing, and swimming. We started them young with swimming, at maybe seven or eight, and kept them until they were teenagers."
While he worked he went to college at Northern Illinois. It took him almost ten years, but in 1966 he got his degree in physical education. "I commuted to college every day. Some people may think anyone can teach gym, but to do it right it takes training."
In those days the Park District was run by political cronies of Mayor Richard J. Daley, and many jobs were given out on the basis of clout. "I wasn't politically connected," says Conrad. "I never went in for that stuff. But, yes, we were hit for tickets to political events. I got my start because people knew me as a boxer and a wrestler. But I did my job well. I worked at it. And the supervisors left me alone to do things as I saw it. They let us be professionals about it."
In 1966 Conrad was sent to Brooks Park in the far northwest corner of the city, on Touhy at Harlem. "All we had up there was a little garage. I developed a boxing team and a wrestling team that was known citywide. We did it all out of that little garage. In the winter we had ice skating. For swimming we took the kids to Norwood Park because I didn't have a pool. I ran a day camp. There were hundreds of kids from the community coming there. I watched them grow up." In 1980 the Park District built a field house with a double gym, and Conrad was able to offer more programs, including basketball, in the winter.
"Under Wally, Brooks Park was always clean and well run," says Griffin. "For a while they were having trouble with rowdy young men, and Wally cleared it up. He ran them out--he can be tough. But the little kids love him. They know him. It's like a family out there."
Conrad received citations and awards from the Park District for teaching, coaching, refereeing, and saving the life of a man who suffered a heart attack while playing softball. "Things were going great," he says. "I never had a complaint about me from anyone."
Then on September 27, Devereux held a meeting of northwest-side Park District supervisors. "At that meeting Devereux told me, 'I want to transfer you laterally to two other parks.' I said, 'Gee, what did I do?' She said, 'Oh, no--nothing wrong. I want to put in someone else. I know you're almost ready to retire.' This was like a nudge out. I said, 'Can I stay until at least the first of the year?' I wasn't planning to retire. And after all these years a guy should be able to retire when he wants. She said, 'No. It's a done deal.'"
A few days later Conrad was told to spend two days a week managing the after-school park programs at a northwest-side school and three days a week at Indian Road Park, a smaller park with fewer programs than Brooks. Meanwhile Devereux brought in a new supervisor to run Brooks Park.
Members of the local park advisory council were upset, and they bombarded Devereux with phone calls and letters. Devereux also received a petition signed by 300 residents, demanding Conrad's return. But she refused to yield.
"Miss Devereux refused to take our calls or was very curt, rude and obnoxious when she did," wrote June Czarnicki, president of the council, in an October 7 letter to Claypool. "Devereux told me that, 'It does not matter what the community wants!' Is this the type of person that the Chicago Park District, which is supposed to work with the community, has working for it?"
Claypool hasn't responded to Czarnicki's letter, and Devereux will say little. "I have no comment," she says. "The Park District has the right on these decisions. And that's my comment. Any other questions should be answered by my communications and marketing manager."
Her communications manager, Starr Lycos, wasn't at the September 27 meeting, but she says Conrad was receptive to Devereux's transfer order at first. "Devereux talked to him at that meeting, and Conrad was fine with it. From what I understand, Wally said, 'No problem.' Everything was hunky-dory with him. I have not pinpointed the reason for his attitude change."
Why did Devereux move Conrad to a new park?
"They thought it would serve the district better. The guy we brought in is terrific and has energy."
But why wasn't the community consulted?
"We recognize the roles of advisory councils as far as advice on programs, but hiring decisions have to go back to the Park District."
Devereux did send Conrad a letter on October 7. "I explained to you the reasons for the transfer at the Region Meeting of September 27," Devereux's letter begins. "I you feel that I was being sensitive by approaching you personally and treating you with the respect you deserve."
The letter hardly satisfied Conrad. "What's that 'I you feel' stuff? It's not even proper English. Here they are moving me out after 27 years--and she doesn't even take the time to proofread her letter before she mails it. That's how much she cares about me. It's ridiculous. And now she says I didn't care about being transferred. Of course I cared. This has been my life. If they treat me like this, there's no hope for anyone else."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.