A Living Legend
By Charles Hoffmann
I shake my head as I look around at a converted space that serves as a shrine to all-things parks and recreation. The walls are covered with awards and articles. Journals and research periodicals fill the spaces in between, along with pictures from successful projects throughout the country. One might think I am sitting in a university library or a college recreation room; however, I am in the research facility of a man endlessly dedicated to our industry—a true legend who has inspired thousands of individuals over the years.
Dr. Harold Nolan’s life reads like a Hollywood movie for parks and rec professionals. His accomplishments are endless, and his story is one that newbies to the industry and even seasoned veterans can benefit from hearing. He lives and breathes parks and recreation, revealing his contagious personality and passion for the industry.
It all began in Middletown, N.J. The son of a World War II veteran turned local builder, Nolan spent his early life filled with traditional recreational endeavors that most children enjoy, including baseball and basketball. He also excelled in diving and surfing (and still can be seen riding waves today). But Nolan showed the most promise in running, and this passion would serve him well throughout his life.
As a high school runner in Monmouth County, N.J., he quickly formed a relationship with Dr. George Sheehan, a rival’s father from a nearby town. Sheehan is known as one of the godfathers of the running boom. He wrote books and countless articles on all aspects of the sport and became an enormous advocate of all-things running in the area, even serving as the medical editor for Runner’s World magazine. Sheehan took a liking to young Nolan and would regularly cram his Volkswagen with Nolan, Sheehan’s sons, Timmy and George Jr., and as many other runners as he could uncomfortably squeeze in for meets throughout New Jersey and New York. Nolan describes the legendary track guru as “certainly brilliant and yet somewhat aloof. [He was] a hard man to truly know.”
Academics And Early Career
Nolan’s early running success laid the foundation for his road to greatness in the world of recreation. He landed a scholarship halfway across the country, enrolling at Kennedy College in Wahoo, Neb., in the fall of 1965. A summer job prior to and during his early college years as a playground camp counselor led Nolan to select “Park and Recreation Management” as his major, and he never looked back.
In 1969, after leaving Kennedy College and countless track records behind, Nolan entered the workforce. His first job was in the seaside town of Long Branch, N.J., which as Nolan puts it, “Was the best first job. I learned so much. It was great years—the golden age of recreation departments.” He oversaw eight rec centers, 21 playgrounds, a fleet of mobile rec equipment, youth boxing, many different parks, community pools, and three miles of guarded ocean beaches. Throughout this five-year period, the department even organized local concerts, several of which featured a local talent named Bruce Springsteen. Throughout Nolan’s tenure in Long Branch, he also found time to complete his master’s degree in Environmental Management at Montclair State University.
Shortly thereafter, Nolan made the next important change in his life, again an intersection of his running and professional lives. After meeting professors at an industry conference and believing in the (then-revolutionary) concept of training at altitude, Nolan enrolled in the University of Utah, earning his doctorate in Recreation, Parks and Tourism, while also training to qualify for the 1976 Olympic Trials.
During his years in Utah, he balanced running, school, and work, landing a position with the Bureau of Land Management as Outdoor Recreation Planner. He learned about planning through his work in the Wasatch Mountains, where he was involved in some amazing projects, including early work on the Park City Planning Unit, which was instrumental in the early formation of the Park City Ski Resort.
The next jump for Nolan landed him teaching young Cornhuskers at the University of Nebraska, where he was a professor in the College of Health, PE and Recreation. At this time, he also gained valuable experience for his work, as his dissertation was on the potential development of the North Platte River. His work would be instrumental in what would later be developed as both federal and state recreation areas.
Returning to the East, Nolan next worked for Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire as Director of Recreational Services, which he describes as “the most unique job I ever had.” The work was two-fold: he oversaw both the college academic recreation, parks, and tourism programs and all campus recreation and sports facilities. Among those was an alpine ski resort run by the university, which he rebuilt from the ground up, including new slopes, lifts, and more. Inexperienced in ski-resort management, he quickly became an expert, revitalizing the once-struggling resort into a profitable success.
In the late 1970s through the 1980s, he returned to his Garden State roots and became the Chair of Kean University’s Recreation, Park and Tourism program, and later as the chair at Georgian Court University’s Tourism, Recreation and Hospitality programs. During this time teaching, he also took over the Recreation & Park Director duty for the rural New Jersey town of Colts Neck, where he would serve for 30 years. His long tenure can be felt today, making Colts Neck one of the most desirable towns to live in. Before he left, he added eight parks to the inventory and 90-plus additional programs. Colts Neck was a finalist for NRPA’s National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Recreation & Park Management award, and Nolan was actively involved in NRPA and NJRPA as well, garnishing dozens of industry awards, including NJRPA’s Recreation Administrator of the Year.
Despite his demanding workload, Nolan continued his remarkable efforts on the running track. He won hundreds of area races at many distances, placing him in the USATF Hall of Fame. He set the American over-40, one-mile record with a 4:15 time. Other career accomplishments include making the 1968 Olympic trials for the steeplechase and setting American age group records for the 1,500-, 3,000- and 5,000-meter distances.
Q and A
Responding to direct questions, Nolan provided some insightful points from which all professionals can gain perspective:
Hoffman: What is the biggest quality one needs to make it in parks and recreation?
Nolan: Flexibility. The job is a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour job. You will be working days, nights, weekends, and holidays, and you need to be OK with that.
Hoffman: Do you have a biggest flop or biggest mistake?
Nolan: Once, when we (Colts Neck) organized the annual Fourth of July fireworks, which hosted thousands of people, we forgot about providing bathrooms. But we showed our flexibility, quickly pivoted, and “found” 20 portable restrooms, grabbing them from other facilities, calling in favors, and doing everything to turn a disaster into a success.
Hoffman: What are you most proud of in your career?
Nolan: It would be my 30 years at Colts Neck. It’s my greatest claim to fame. I had a blank slate and was able to build something special. [He quickly thanked his rec committee and teammates.]
Hoffman: Where do you see the industry going, and what challenges do you see?
Nolan: Budgeting. We have to ensure we are always operating efficiently. It’s vital to serve the three streams—natural-resource management, rec programming , and park operations, making sure we are adjusting to consumer demands and protection of the land.
Equally impressive, Nolan has developed The Institute of Tourism and Recreation Management. His New Jersey-based research facility rivals any similar center, with thousands of master-planning reports, industry publications, textbooks, journals, magazine collections, and periodicals. Students and professionals are welcome to learn more about the research center by visiting www.itrm.org.
It was a truly remarkable experience to learn about this legend. His dedication and unending stream of knowledge is idol-worthy. Nolan is a true legend and a game changer in parks and recreation. His passion is infectious, and his career is inspiring. Like his running pace, his achievements show no sign of slowing down.
Charles Hoffmann graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a Degree in Recreation and Leisure Services Management. He has over 20 years of experience in municipal and commercial recreation and currently serves as the Director of Recreation in Red Bank, N.J. He lives and writes on the N.J. coast and has published several articles with PRB in recent years. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.