Mind & Spirit

Webbs Norman: A Lifetime of Lessons

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He’s spent more than 50 years working with the Rockford Park District, and his latest project is no small feat. Discover some of the lessons from this dynamic director, and learn about his new book — a comprehensive history of the park district.

Webbs Norman stands outside the Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens, proudly displaying his new book on the history of the Rockford Park District. (Tom Holoubek photo)

When Webbs Norman took over as executive director of the Rockford Park District in 1972, his plan was fairly simple – to gain some experience for a few years before moving on to another opportunity. But a funny thing happened along the way: He fell in love with Rockford, and the community embraced him for his passion, vision and leadership. He ended up leading the park district for the next 34 years and making Rockford his permanent home. Not bad for someone who didn’t even know recreation was an actual career choice when he headed off to college at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1952.

“There’s no way I could have envisioned that my life would have turned out the way it has,” says Norman, who retired in June 2006. “We all have something special and unique about us. If you discover your calling in life, you don’t have to worry about ever working again. And the satisfaction I’ve received throughout my career is a wonderful by-product of what I committed my life to be – one of purpose, balance and harmony.”

Forty years later, Norman is still making his mark on the community. Along with co-chair Kent Mallquist, he led the fundraising campaign that raised more than $13 million to build the district’s state-of-the-art Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens. In addition, he completed his first book, Building a Lasting Dream: A History of the Rockford Park District 1909-2009, written with Rockford Register Star writer Geri Nikolai and current park district executive director Tim Dimke. The book also includes contributions from dozens of citizens, friends, past commissioners and staff members.

“It’s all part of sharing,” Norman says. “I want people to know the park district’s history, and the key people who got us from where we were then to where we are now. It gives great insight into the strengths that built this service-oriented organization, and the strengths that will be necessary to keep it this way for future generations. And it recognizes the citizens who made it this way, especially the 49 community leaders who served as park commissioners during the first 100 years.”

Norman began his career with the park district in 1955, as a seasonal employee working in the summer playground program. He then went back to the U of I, where he earned a B.S. in education in 1957 and a master’s degree in parks and recreation administration in 1960. He then worked at various park districts around the state for several years.

In 1972, he returned to Rockford and led the district through three decades of growth, including the acquisition of more than 1,000 acres of parks, two ice rinks, a tennis center, a path system, Sportscore One and Two, Aldeen Golf Club, Magic Waters Waterpark, an award-winning system of museums and more than 100 playgrounds. The district gained a reputation for being one of the best in the nation, as judged by the citizens it serves.

“He’s been an excellent leader, not just for the Rockford Park District, but for the entire community,” says Mallquist. “Over the years, there have been times when someone needed a mediator, and Webbs was always there to help. He’s a great motivator. He’s moved many people to do great things. That’s why I admire him.”

Humble Beginnings

Norman spent his formative years on a small farm near Morrison, Ill., where he lived with his parents, David and Beulah, and three older brothers. His two first-grade teachers impacted him greatly.

“The first teacher flunked me, because of my resistance to his approach,” Norman says. “He liked to pit one student against another. I learned a negative approach to human relationships from him. My second first-grade teacher was completely the opposite. He taught us to work together, play together and study together. I learned during those two years who I wanted to be like and what I didn’t want to be like. I also knew I wanted to be involved in some form of education. I saw the impact a teacher can have on students, positively or negatively. I wanted mine to be positive. I’ve never changed my goals or values.”

But Norman’s childhood wasn’t always rosy. His father was raised in Alabama and spent his early days working in the cotton fields rather than attending school. He couldn’t read or write – not even his name. “I would accompany him to job interviews and help sign paperwork,” Norman recalls.

His father also suffered from alcoholism, which contributed to his premature death at age 40. “Growing up was sometimes difficult,” says Norman, who was 15 at the time. “That’s why I’ve never had a drink. It was hard in high school when many of my buddies started drinking. But you either go the same route as your father, or you go the opposite way. I chose to go the opposite way. But I learned the value of hard work and education from my dad, which proved to be an important asset as I grew up, and I learned from my mother, who went through the third grade, the value of caring, acceptance and love of family.”

To fill the void created by his father’s absence, Norman turned to male role models in his life – teachers, ministers, coaches – for guidance and friendship. “I have a personal Hall of Fame of 180-plus people who have helped me through my life, people from Morrison and many who live in Rockford today,” he says.

The same year that his father died, Norman borrowed $250 from a friend and started a sewer cleaning business. He jokes that his new endeavor limited his social life, but was profitable. “There wasn’t a long line of people waiting to become professional sewer cleaners,” he says.

At 21, Norman found his true calling during his sophomore year at the U of I, when he watched a movie produced by the National Recreation Association called Playtown USA. It featured the city of Decatur, Ill., detailing how it established a tax-supported recreation program during the heart of the Great Depression. The movie illustrated the significant impact that recreation made on the community of Decatur – and left a lasting impression on young Norman.

“The playground has always been an incredible learning environment,” he says. “I’ve never had a dull or boring day since seeing that movie.”

Book of Knowledge

Even after decades of association with the Rockford Park District, Norman says he gained a better understanding of both the park district’s culture and the role recreation plays in society, while researching the book.

“The core values of the park district were established early on by the first elected park board,” he says. “What they established has stayed in place for 100 years.”

He learned how golf became so popular, thanks to the work of non-golfer Fred Carpenter, who realized the game’s value at Rockford Country Club, the only course in the area at the turn of the century. Carpenter, elected to the park district board in 1909, told the board that golf was so important it should be democratized and made available to all.
“That’s why, in 1912, we had a golf course at Sinnissippi, just three years after the park district was established,” Norman says.

Through research, Norman also learned about the volunteers, who from the very beginning made the district such a trusted entity in the community. They included people such as Levin Faust, who moved from Sweden to Rockford at age 26 and was instrumental in forming the park district; he served on the board until his death in 1936.

“The agency can never be any better than the collective values and skills of those in charge of it,” Norman says. “The past, the present and the future are always connected by the board that sets its vision and mission.”

Norman always conducted business at local coffee shops and restaurants, and still does.

That’s why Norman asked his successor, Tim Dimke, to write the book’s closing chapter, which focuses on the future. It was important, Norman says, to present readers with different perspectives.

“Effective government is never caught short if the board requires ongoing programs of preparation, including leadership succession,” he says. “The transition from my term to Tim’s was a very smooth one. There wasn’t even a blip on the screen when I retired and Tim assumed the position.”

Says Dimke: “It’s important for all of us to understand our past to help us implement in the present and to plan for the future. I hope everyone will enjoy reading the book and viewing the many photos. This project was a labor of love for Webbs and played an important role in helping us to capture and document the district’s many milestones, all of which paved the way to where we are today.”

The Work Continues

In preparation for the book project, Norman recruited about 40 current and former park district employees to attend a brainstorming session. The group tossed around ideas on what the book’s content should include. He enlisted the help of Nikolai, a veteran scribe for the local newspaper. Other key volunteers included Bob Kirkpatrick, Jan Herbert, Barb Bailor and Vance Barrie. The research, writing and editing of the book took nearly three years.

“Working with Webbs was great,” Nikolai says. “We spent a lot of time talking about his 30-plus years in the park district, with each topic including his philosophy on dealing with people and getting things done the right way and, Webbs would add, for the right reason. My ‘education’ consisted not only of Park District history but also of the way he dealt with staff and members of the public, and how that resulted in surprises and successes for the district and of course, for the citizens. We shared the goal of making this a fun book to read, but also one that deepened people’s understanding of, and appreciation for, how a park district contributes to quality of life. It was a huge but rewarding task, both professionally and personally.”

The process was not without challenges. In 2008, just as he was starting to write, Norman’s daughter Kathy died from complications of ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease. Then, as he was wrapping up the project earlier this year, Barb Bailor, his longtime office associate, died after a battle with cancer. The losses cut the normally tough-skinned Norman especially deep.

“Love can go from extraordinary to painful,” he says. “You never overcome loss, but you learn to deal with it. It’s all part of life, and we don’t have any control over it, only how we respond to it.”

Norman’s book has been well received by both park district employees and the general public, all of whom received personal copies, thanks to a memorial fund remembering the late Judge Harris Agnew, a longtime district commissioner and volunteer.

“When I came here in 1972, I found out the employees weren’t well-versed about the district,” Norman says. “It’s important that the current staff knows about the history of its organization.”

“What Webbs did was what we all say we’re going to do, and that is to write a book,” says Ruth Miller, facility manager for the Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens, and program director for the City of Gardens. “If people don’t tell a story, then the story disappears. The information he put down in writing is invaluable and will be used for generations to come. It’s a reference guide and a history book for all of us.”

The Rockford Area Visitors and Convention Bureau (RACVB) purchased 30 books to give to customers and VIPs as a way to share the story of Rockford and its high quality of life.

“The history and future of Rockford is tied, part and parcel, with the Rockford Park District,” says John Groh, president and CEO of the RACVB. “Understanding the first 100 years of the district illuminates Rockford’s history and gives an indication of where we’re headed as a community. Our physical landscape has forever been positively impacted by the district.

“Add to this many of our cultural, recreational and entertainment assets that have benefited from the leadership and vision of the district’s staff and commissioners, and you begin to understand how drastically different our community would be without the Rockford Park District.”

Equally important to Norman is the favorable response he’s received from several area educators, who plan to make the book part of their curriculum. “That’s really exciting to me,” he says. “It has the quality and potential to impact students who are interested in learning about the importance of recreation in their communities.”

Words to Live By

Norman and wife Mary have four living children and three grandchildren. He shares a simple philosophy that has carried him through much of his life: “If your values are clear, your decisions are easy.”

Those telling words now appear on a paved brick at the Nicholas Conservatory that his children donated in his honor.
Even though Norman “officially” retired in 2006, he has remained committed to the park district, working almost full-time as a volunteer. In addition to raising funds for the conservatory, he’s also serving as the district’s historian.

During a recent walk through the conservatory, amid majestic palm trees and dancing butterflies, Norman spoke with excitement about the facility’s potential.

“It’s quickly becoming the district’s signature facility,” he says. “It’s already brought a lot of pride to the community, and the best part is yet to come, with the addition of the gardens and the lagoon. It soon will become a true destination location.”

These days, Norman is busy with book signings and presentations. He doesn’t fancy himself an author, but he has a few more ideas that he wants to pursue, including a sequel to his first effort and another that explores issues of leadership and core values.

And he has no plans to slow down. Recently, he celebrated his 79th birthday, starting with breakfast at a local coffee shop, followed by lunch with park district staff and dinner with family.

To Norman, it was the ultimate day.

“There are three keys to life,” he says. “Enjoy the work you do, love the people around you and make time to re-energize yourself. What we put into life is what we get back.” ❚

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