It’s In The Genes

Father and son follow a similar path in parks and recreation

By Jon McChesney
Photo: Courtesy of Jon McChesney

I received a very unexpected phone call to my home in North Carolina in June of 1999—the type of phone call you never want to receive. My brother-in-law—who I had known and cherished since a young boy—had died suddenly, leaving behind my sister and her two teen daughters. Nine months later, I received another call, this one informing me that my father was in the hospital and not doing very well. Two weeks later, he died. After the funeral, I returned to my job teaching at East Carolina University (ECU). Once again, approximately three weeks later, another phone call informing me that another family member had died.

Soon after my return to work from the third funeral, the chair of my department, Dr. Thom Skalko, came into my office, closed the door, and said, “We need to talk.” I don’t know about anyone else, but that statement is not in my top 10 favorites! Skalko, my mentor, said with tears in his eyes that there was a position open at my alma mater, Eastern Kentucky University (EKU). He added that while they wanted me to stay at East Carolina University, he felt a “human” responsibility to inform me of this position.

The Best Career In The World
Now the real quandary began. I was in a faculty position at ECU that I loved and my spiritual life in North Carolina was strong given my role as recreation director at a local church. After much internal debate, I realized that this job opening presented a rare opportunity to lend support to my mom, sister, nieces and other family. Further, it allowed me to continue the legacy that my father established at EKU and within the department. You see, my father started the Department of Recreation and Park Administration back in 1966, serving as chair for 24 years. I practically grew up in the halls of the Begley Building, walking over every day from school until it was time to ride home with my dad. As I write this article, I’m sitting in the very office my father occupied for years—now that’s cool!

I never wanted to be a professor. I never considered a career in recreation and parks. But the genes knew better. My dad was a recreation professional. Prior to his career in higher education, he was an assistant director of parks and recreation in Milwaukee, and the director of recreation and parks in Sheboygan, Wis. It was his recreation spirit and influence that led me to my career as a university professor—the best career in the world.

The Best Parts Of Childhood
Anytime my dad returned from an industry conference, there were goodies to be had from the vendors. Any type of ball was certainly a favorite, but then there were items that arrived that no doubt were the first in the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky, such as tetherball. Invariably, this game had to be explained to friends since they had never seen one before. There was also basketball in the backyard along with Wiffle Ball games, croquet, bocce ball, and he would even catch me pitching baseball until I turned 13 and threw too hard!

We also went camping while he checked on intern students. The best intern visit was when I was around 10 years old and we went to Decatur, Ala., to visit Point Mallard Park—home of the first wave pool in the United States. The pool was massive and included a 10-meter diving tower and to a boy screamed FUN! These types of vacation and intern visits were common as we visited various parks throughout the country like Fort De Soto Park in Florida as well as many state resort parks in Kentucky where he trained all seasonal recreation staff.

The Best Way To Honor Dad
Continuing my father’s legacy has been a career highlight. When I arrived at EKU in 2000, I started thinking about a way to honor him. We had played a lot of golf together along with my mom, Gwen, and brother, Jim, so I decided to go with a golf tournament we named the Dr. James McChesney Memorial Golf Classic. This event serves as a scholarship fundraiser, a service-learning opportunity for students, a mechanism to promote our department, and a means of connecting alumni. As a result of the Golf Classic, the scholarship award has increased over 950 percent. Students assume shared responsibility with me for marketing, event logistics, decorations, food service, hospitality, awards, sponsorship, and event evaluation.

I had a wonderful childhood thanks to my dad and a wonderful career that followed in the footsteps of a consummate recreation professional.

Dr. Jon McChesney is a professor and chair of the Department of Recreation and Park Administration for Eastern Kentucky University. Reach him at

The Dr. James McChesney Memorial Golf Classic received the 2015 Program Award from the Kentucky Recreation and Park Society.

Dr. James McChesney was a Korean War combat veteran and was very involved with KRPS, receiving the KRPS Presidential Citation for Distinguished Service to the Field of Recreation and Parks in 1978 and again in 1985. He was inducted into the KRPS Hall of Fame in 2010.