Farewell, Cleveland Metroparks

By Ron Ciancutti

In May of 1984, I was a typical, overanxious young man who had been out of college for a year and had yet to find “long-term employment.” I had worked hard in school. I had good grades and a strong resume, and had studied up on all the tricks needed for success in the business trade. I couldn’t understand why people weren’t lining up to hire me; it might have to do with the fact that, other than college activities and writing 20-page papers, I didn’t know much about anything yet.

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My Big Break
I read that Cleveland Metroparks was looking for a seasonal (six months) project manager with some background in legal research and technical writing, and I was proficient at both. I thought this may not be the Wall Street job I was expecting to land, but in the meantime it seemed like a decent place to mark time. Little did I know how that opportunity would humble me and readjust my expectations from the first day.

The gentleman who hired me was a well-educated, extremely humorous man who clearly loved his job and all that went with a fondness for nature and the proper management of land and water. My assignment was to assess and categorize the legal abstracts that described the parcels of land that comprised the park system and determine where the agency had mineral rights (and obligations) to those properties. By locating the wells and logging their status and condition, the parks could apply for a grant from the state and get those potential hazards plugged and safely closed.

A Word Of Caution
After a month of combing through the abstracts, I sat down with my supervisor and devised a schedule to meet the park managers of each gas-well site on a given property. Before I left, my supervisor cautioned me that many of the managers I would be meeting were simply men who worked their way up at Cleveland Metroparks and were very “territorial” about their responsibilities. Those men who were cutting the grass as boys were now managing as men. In other words, they might see I simply represented “administration” and hadn’t yet earned the right to question their decisions on how they kept their lands. If I, as an “office boy/desk-jockey” was coming out to sniff around their properties, they would naturally be defensive. I decided jeans and a flannel shirt would be a better choice for these meetings instead of the suit and tie I wore every day to the office. I also decided I would do more listening than talking. I understood they were much like the tradesmen and “salt-of-the-earth” workers I had grown up admiring and listening to. It was becoming clear to me that, in this job, I would be relying on many things I had learned BEFORE college—common-sense and integrity that I came to understand in my simple, blessed life in Berea, Ohio. Yes, I had left home to get an education, but now after the “book-learning” was finished, the mission wasn’t just getting a job, it was clearly becoming the blending of my education and a trade and environment that reflected my values and beliefs. Indeed, I was discovering the difference between an educated man and a man with an education.

Making My Mark
And so it began. My first visits were greeted hesitantly as expected, but I worked hard to put those gentlemen at ease, and they reciprocated. I found that each was a steward of the land and so dedicated and loyal that calling them “employees” seemed far short of an accurate description. These guys were more like “investors” who had stock in the company. In our opening dialogues, I worked to drop any “college-boy” label they might try to hang on me. Yes, I had been to school, but that didn’t mean I was out of touch. I was determined to be myself and asked about their families and their dreams, and most importantly, if they thought Cleveland Metroparks was a good place for a young man like me to try to secure a full-time job. I didn’t read them my resume. I talked to them and listened and learned so very much. One said I had an honesty and sincerity about me that was noticeable and would serve me well in a place like this. His words made me swell with pride. He said my college peers would probably go on to make more money, but if I stayed on, I would always have a job and have enough to cover what I needed and the support of people to make up for what I did not. He said a man can work in a lot of places, but when he retires from a place like this, he’ll know he made a difference in a way that would exceed any gold watch or plaque for “most sales in a year.” As the summer wore on, my supervisor revealed he was getting calls from those men who felt they had somehow “invested” in me. They told him he ought to keep me full time instead of letting me go after my temporary stint. The term “fine young man” was evidently brought up a lot. I finished my six months and left Cleveland Metroparks with a prayer that something would open up permanently. Eight months later, I got my wish, coming aboard full time in the Engineering Department as an instrument man on the survey crew—a position that had nothing to do with my education, but I didn’t care. I knew I just wanted to be a part of this organization. Where and how I finished there would take care of itself.

Beaming With Pride
Over the next 35 years, I served the park district under four appointing judges, 12 members of the board, and three executive directors, accomplishing seven promotions during that period, managing many projects, serving on more than a dozen committees within the company, and winning numerous awards and honors; I even became the park district’s first complete tuition-reimbursement candidate to graduate with a master’s degree in business from Baldwin Wallace University in 1993.

Among all those honors, I still relish one more than any other: the faithful following of all those friends I made that first year. At the annual Christmas party, those park managers sought me out and introduced me to their wives. “This is the young man I was telling you about. He’s gonna carry the torch after all us old-timers are gone,” they’d say, with a slap on the back and an arm around my neck. It was the most real and genuine moment I can remember, and I took their endorsements with great pride. “You’re a good kid, Ronnie. God bless you.”

Indeed, it sure seems He did.

Editor’s Note: On December 1, 2018, Ron Ciancutti retired from Cleveland Metroparks taking 36.5 years into the OPERS retirement system at 57 years of age. He will continue to grace our pages with his column in PRB and rumor has it he may be working on a book or two in the years to come. If so, he’s promised we will be the first to know.

Ron Ciancutti worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He is now retired. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at ron@northstarpubs.com.