The History And Tradition Of Recreation

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

Recently, I had an interesting call from a man who had read one of the “LBWA” articles and wanted to offer his accolades and some suggestions. Our conversation made me realize how important it is to understand the history and development of parks and recreation.

I could tell right away John H. Davis was a man I would enjoy talking with. He was articulate and full of energy, and I could tell by the inflection in his voice that he loved talking about recreation.

He spoke of his days as a young recreation coordinator, living in the very space he programmed. He remarked about his entry into the field and mentioned that he was involved with the NRPA in the early days of its formation.

We had a great conversation, and I asked him to write me a letter or e-mail, giving some of his thoughts that I could use in a future column.

Meeting Mr. Recreation

After the phone call, I asked our Recreation Administrator, Sherry, if she had ever heard of John Davis. Sherry graduated from Georgia Southern with a recreation degree, and has worked in the field all her life.

When I said his name, her jaw dropped and she blurted, “John Davis? Well, yeah!” She became a bit pale and somewhat weak-kneed then gasped, “He’s an icon in the recreation field! He was one of the guys they quoted in school. He is like Mr. Recreation. You were talking to him?!”

Understand, I am a transplant to this field, coming from the Marine Corps, where our idea of recreation was very different and normally involved at least a 50-50 chance of death or dismemberment. Sherry eats, sleeps, and dreams contemporary recreation, so I could tell she was a little jealous.

After she went on about Mr. Davis for a while, I felt special that he had taken the time to even pick up the phone and call me. I Googled him, and found that Sherry’s awe was well-deserved. Below is a short bio I discovered on the Web site of the American Academy for Parks and Recreation Administration, where he is listed as a “Legend of Parks and Recreation”:

“John H. Davis started his parks and recreation career in the city of Darlington, S.C., in 1954 where he served as director of parks and recreation for two and one half years. After receiving a master’s degree from Columbia University in New York in 1957, he became the director of parks and recreation in Dalton, Ga. He served there for six and one half years. In 1963, he was chosen to head up a new state agency, The Georgia Recreation Commission. During his 10-year tenure, 40 new parks and recreation systems were established in local governments with advisory assistance and guidance from Mr. Davis and his small staff. He served as associate director and director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority for three years, and in 1976 he became the director of the National Recreation and Park Association where he served 10 years.”

During our phone conversation, Mr. Davis had mentioned something about being involved with an early version of the Georgia Recreation and Parks Association, but not that he headed it up! And 10 years with the NRPA, which was founded in 1965 through the merger of five national recreation-oriented organizations! With more research, I learned there’s a recreation center named in his honor in Dalton, Ga.

In the Marine Corps culture, history, legend and honoring predecessors are an important part of life and one of the reasons Marines share an ageless, mysterious bond. Some call it esprit de corps, but it really defies explanation or labeling. It is handed down from one generation of Marine to the next.

A Bond From The Past To Build A Future

In the Marines’ very inception into the Corps, whether boot camp or officers’ candidate school, officers and enlisted alike study important battles and the legendary Marine heroes who fought them, such as John Basilone, Alfred Cunningham, Chesty Puller, Dan Daly, Carlos Hathcock, Ray Davis. These names may not mean much to most Americans, but to Marines they are icons, indeed, they are the Marine Corps. They are names that today’s Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan and throughout the world take into battle with them. They hear the true-life stories of the heroism, camaraderie, selflessness and sacrifice their predecessors demonstrated so they can be proud of the U.S. Marine title, and want to emulate their example.

Some might call this outdated thinking propaganda or brainwashing … It’s not! It is a timeless phenomenon that provides a basis upon which new members of a unique society can share a bond from the past to build new bonds for the future. It makes us understand that we will always be part of something much bigger than ourselves (because once a Marine, always a Marine).

That phone call from John Davis, a man of the Greatest Generation, made me realize that I had spoken to an icon, and that I am missing a sense of history and tradition of the parks and rec field. I am now motivated to learn more about the genesis of the parks and rec world. I’ll be sharing my findings with you.

Mr. Davis did write me a letter, and shared some common-sense, down-to-earth wisdom from his perspective about parks and recreation. I’ll be sharing it with you in the next column. If you have some interesting recreation stories to share, send them on to me via the e-mail below. History is built one legend at a time.

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail