When you think about growing up in a community, chances are government services don’t immediately spring to mind.
It’s probably more like summers at the pool with your friends.
It’s the times you spent running around the playground playing tag, when you hit the perfect shot in a game of pickup basketball, and hanging around the park till dusk, wishing the street lights wouldn’t kick on for another few precious minutes to remind you it’s time to go home.
Yet those things wouldn’t be possible without forward-thinking people in local government who have vision to see what’s needed to put the unity in community.
And no one in our community had a better understanding of it all than Cecil Gilkerson.
The founder of Harrisonburg Parks and Recreation, who died last week at 92, is responsible for so much of the quality of life in the Friendly City.
“I’m in awe of the vision he had to secure the property we have now,” Luanne Santangelo, the department’s current director, said in June during a celebration marking 65 years since Gilkerson started to build the park system from a 1-acre parcel.
From its humble beginnings, Gilkerson built it into 650 acres of green space, playgrounds and walking paths we all love today.
“He did it as a labor of love because he really loved Harrisonburg and the people here,” said Lynn Hoy, one of his four daughters.
When you start something from the ground up like Gilkerson did, it has to be a labor of love. And it was with that love that Gilkerson oversaw development of numerous city parks, won a laundry list of grants and advocated strongly for facilities and programs to keep children off the street and residents active.
A Mount Crawford native, Gilkerson was Rockingham County through and through, graduating from now-defunct Bridgewater High School in 1944 and playing basketball and baseball for his one year at Bridgewater College. Then duty called and Gilkerson, like many of his generation, went off to fight on distant shores during World War II. A stop at Catawba College in North Carolina to finish his education was followed by a job here and there before he returned home and became the founding father of our city’s parks and rec department.
Yes, under him that department was considered the role model for cities under 50,000 in population. And yes, we have him to thank for all the amenities that we enjoy, the parks we walk through, places we play basketball, swing the rackets and even chip in our golf balls.
“He was the biggest advocate for the parks and recreation in the city of Harrisonburg for 35 years,” said Tom Hoy, Gilkerson’s son-in-law who would go on to serve Winchester as its parks and rec director. “He was the Parks and Recreation Department.”
Thankfully, he was ours.