Johnson County recently lost a champion of green space and recreation activities who was instrumental in impacting the quality of life in Johnson County. Longtime JCPRD employees have lost a friend.
Former JCPRD Executive Director Gary L. Haller passed away in the early hours of Thursday, Dec. 10. He had retired from the agency in March 2001 after 27 years with JCPRD, but had remained in touch with many current and former employees.
“Many of you, like me, had the privilege of working with him and seeing his true genius that left lasting impacts on JCPRD and Johnson County, as well as beyond those boundaries,” JCPRD Administration Manager Jo Ann Courtney wrote in a Thursday email to staff. “He will not be forgotten, and the Gary L. Haller Trail on the Mill Creek Streamway Park will tell a part of his story to generations to come.”
In June of 2002, the 17 miles of the trail she mentions was renamed to honor Haller. Interpretive signs featuring a portrait of the former director and information about his impact in the field of parks and recreation are located near all eight access points to the trail, which stretches from 119th and Northgate in Olathe to Nelson Island in the Kansas River.
“So many of us have been fortunate to have Gary as a friend and mentor,” added current JCPRD Executive Director Jeff Stewart, who came to the agency in 2016 as deputy director and became executive director in September 2019. “Gary was the father of the streamway park system. If you haven’t already, I hope sometime you will have an opportunity to visit the streamway and stop to read the signage about him.”
“It is so true that we are blessed to have had Gary in our lives,” added Former Executive Director Jill Geller, who left JCPRD in September 2019 after five and -one-half years as executive director and 36 years with JCPRD in various capacities. “(Gary) did not just lead an organization - he created a family. I wish we could be together to celebrate his amazing life, but we are for sure together in spirit.”
“Few men or women for that matter, shaped a work team, a community and even a national movement in parks and recreation more than our beloved ‘gentle bear’ Gary,” said Michael Meadors, who served as JCPRD’s executive director from 2001 to 2013, and a total of 27 years with the agency. “I know I am a better person having shared many life experiences with such a wonderful man!”
“He was a grizzly bear with a sincere heart of gold,” added former Johnson County Park and Recreation Board Member Vickie Truitt, who served on the board from 1993 to 2006. “I treasure my memories of working with him. We will miss him so much!”
No one knew it the time, but a number of longtime and former employees and board members got to see Haller one last time during the opening of a time capsule which took place on Nov. 5. The capsule was sealed in 1995 when the JCPRD Administration Building in Shawnee Mission Park opened, and its contents were revealed during the outdoor event in November.
“The opening of that 1995-2020 time capsule was a fitting goodbye,” Courtney said. “It was his idea, and 1995 was the first year JCPRD won the National Gold Medal Award.”
Under Haller’s leadership, JCPRD grew from fewer than 50 employees to 165 employees and, from fewer than 1,800 acres to approximately 6,100 acres of parkland. The agency was formed in 1955 and Haller served as its fourth Director. JCPRD achieved national recognition as the 1995 recipient of the prestigious Gold Medal Award. In 1999, it became only the 22nd agency in the nation to become nationally accredited by the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies, and it has been reaccredited in five-year increments five times since then. Another major accomplishment was a change in 1980 that established a dual role of law enforcement and interpretation for Johnson County Park Police. This move was and continues to be a great public education tool for the district’s outdoor education programs, as well as demonstrating JCPRD’s desire to have safe parks.
A Colby, Kan., native, Haller came to JCPRD in August 1974 after 15 years with the state of Kansas, where he served as assistant director in charge of state outdoor recreation planning and administration of the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and did recreation planning for the Kansas Park and Resource Authority.