Jim Wemesfelder still remembers when he first interviewed for the position of commissioner of parks and recreation for the town of Salina.
“I was so sure I was not going to get the job, because I was a classroom teacher amongst several phys. ed. teacher candidates. So I went to a Syracuse Chiefs baseball game in a suit and tie and left in the middle of a double header for my interview,”’ Wemesfelder said. “I did my interview and then I returned to the game.”
He also remembers the call that came into his home at about 10 p.m. that same night.
“Dr. Luke LaPorta called my home and asked to speak with the director of Parks and Rec,” he said, “and the rest is history.”
LaPorta was the director of a parks commission that served the town in the late 1960s. In 1970, then-Supervisor Lou Nicoletti directed the commission to hire a director to formulate a recreation program for the town. Wemesfelder, the commission decided, was the man for the job, and he’s lived up to the task. Since his appointment, Salina has added a pool in each of its four wards, 15 playground sites and nearly 200 acres of park land.
Wemesfelder is set to retire July 26. That means he’ll have completed 43 years as the director town of Salina’s parks and recreation department — possibly longer than any other commissioner in the state and perhaps the country.
But Wemesfelder’s career in parks and rec dates back even farther than his hire in Salina in 1970. It started when he was a senior in high school monitoring an adult basketball program in a Rochester suburb and continued with a three-year stint as playground director for the town of Clay. Wemesfelder was also a classroom teacher, tennis and soccer coach for the Liverpool Central School District for 33 years.
The parks department has come a long way since Wemesfelder took office — for example, there’s actually an office now.
“When I started, I had no office and no budget, no staff,” he said. “I shared a desk with the dog catcher in supervisor’s office. I had one drawer and the dog catcher had the other.”
Clearly, Wemesfelder, who led seven consecutive LHS tennis teams to the championships, had his work cut out for him. So he took his experience with the town of Clay and built upon that.
“I fashioned a program for the town of Salina,” he said. “I submitted a budget to the town board. They graciously funded it and have done so for 43 years.”
In three years, the town had built 15 playgrounds and two pools. Two more were added as years went on, and Salina was able to build one of the most comprehensive aquatics programs in the area.
The pools and aquatic program stand out as one of Wemesfelder’s prouder memories.
“Every youngster in town of Salina who wanted to learn how to swim was given that opportunity regardless of financial background. Any child who wanted to learn was offered that opportunity in the town of Salina,” he said. “Last year, we taught 687 kids. So you take 600 kids times 40 years, I’m no mathematician, but that’s thousands of kids that might otherwise be a headline in the paper.”
Wemesfelder is also especially proud of Sehr Park in Lyncourt, which was built with no local tax dollars.
“For years, the feds would not allow municipalities to use fed money as a match to get fed money,” he said. “The first year they relaxed that requirement, we pounced on it.”
The town used federal revenue sharing as our 50 percent match and received a like amount through the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. That money was used to develop a 10-acre park near the Alvord House in Lyncourt on land originally owned by Syracuse China.
Under Wemesfelder’s leadership, the parks program has grown to include eight parks, four pools, a fleet of trucks and mowers (the parks department does all of its own maintenance) and programs from Tiny Tot swimming to several active senior citizen groups.
“From tot lot swimming to senior citizens’ programs, we have them from the cradle to the grave,” Wemesfelder said.
Though the programs have grown, in large part, little else has changed.
“In many respects, not much has changed over the past 40 years in recreation,” Wemesfelder said. “Those butterflies in a 5-year-old’s tummy jumping into the deep end of a pool are the same butterflies that were around 40 years ago. That same kid who gets his or her first hit in little league or soccer goal wears the same beaming smile of days of old. A senior citizen wears that same look of anticipation on a bus trip to view fall colors. As far as parks and rec goes, I can’t see that anything has changed. It’s just gotten bigger and served more people.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club’s Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.