Town of Salina
Retired Town of Salina Parks and Recreation Administrator Jim Wemesfelder came to Central New York to student teach in 1964 in the Liverpool Central School District. During his eight-week tenure at Craven Crawford Elementary, building Principal Hal Bayer offered him a teaching job. Ironically, Hal had transferred from Mark Loveless Elementary at 201 School Road, which was to become the Salina Town Hall.
Two years later, Mr. Bayer encouraged Jim to apply for the position of assistant to the superintendent of schools. Jim declined. Three years later head school psychologist Frank Rhyner offered Jim an innovative pilot position in special education at Liverpool High School. Again, Jim declined. In 1970, Dr. Luke La Porta encouraged Jim to apply for the newly created position of parks and recreation director for the town of Salina. This time, Jim accepted, interviewed and was hired. “And that has made all the difference.”
Over the next several weeks, Jim will share his experiences during his 44 years as what might very well be the longest tenured department head at the town level in the state of New York.
Fifty years ago, the Salina Town Board created a Parks and Recreation Commission of seven members. Two years later, in 1970, Town Supervisor Louis Nicoletti, directed the commission to advertise, interview and recommend a park and recreation director to the town board for their consideration. Criteria included residency, a master’s degree and a strong background in the field of parks and recreation.
The chairman of the commission was Dr. Luke LaPorta, the director of physical education and athletics at Liverpool Central Schools and Chairman of the Board for Little League International headquartered in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Some of the old-timers will remember Luke as the Father of Liverpool Little League, which he started after the war in the mid-1940s. I remember his call at 10 o’clock one evening as if it were yesterday when he said, “May I speak with the director of parks and recreation for the town of Salina?” I said, “You’re kidding?!” The stiff competition included physical education teachers, some with minors in recreation and some with certificates of advanced study.
I began my duties July 1, 1970, by sharing a desk in the back of the office of the town supervisor’s secretary. The dog catcher had drawers on one side of the desk and I the other. The town hall was located at 913 Old Liverpool Road adjacent to the Liverpool Drive-Inn Theatre. I considered myself on the fast track to success when, a year later, a third of the lunchroom was cordoned off with paneling for my very own “state-of-the-art” office. The downside was the eight-foot paneling did not reach the 10-foot ceiling, thus affording little privacy with the town hall employee lunch bunch! In the event problems of a personnel nature arose, conferences were held in the rear parking lot near the woods leading to Onondaga Parkway. I rehabbed the vintage 1940s metal desk with a can of spray paint in that same lot to cover dents and scratches; I was in business!
During my first official meeting with the Park Commission in the town hall kitchen, I was told I had no budget, staff, equipment nor parks, save for one piece of undeveloped land on 4.6 acres amongst a jungle of willows off Sunflower Drive. Generations ago, basket weaving was a huge industry in the Liverpool area — there are pictures in the town hall depicting same. With neither money nor resources, I summoned a local Boy Scout troop looking to fulfill merit badges to, in some cases, crawl on their bellies to drag out discarded refrigerators, hot water tanks and old baby strollers. Through the generosity of the highway department, a truck and employees made the ad hoc “dump” disappear. Next stop was the town supervisor’s office to tap into the general fund to hire a local farmer to clear the willows and voila, Salina’s first park!
In the spring of 1971 I hired my first employee: a college kid disguised as a maintenance worker. We used the trunks of my car and his to haul cement and tools. I arranged for a playground equipment company to drop off a jungle gym, swing set and playground slide at the park entrance. There were boxes and boxes of metal pipes, nuts and bolts stacked on pallets six feet high. Nothing in my farming experience by day nor factory job by night or any of my college courses prepared me for instructions better deciphered by a mechanical drawing professor. We prevailed upon a good hearted neighbor for use of his garden hose to mix cement in the only piece of “heavy equipment” the department owned — a wheelbarrow. Last I knew, the fruits of our labor nearly 50 years ago remain standing to this day.
With regard to playgrounds, my initial concentration was in areas outside existing programs. The Lyncourt Youth Project, Inc., funded by the Lyncourt School District, covered Ward Four. The Mattydale-Hinsdale Park District was funded within its own district encompassing Ward Three. The village of Liverpool in Ward One sponsored the Liverpool Youth Council, but through its benevolence served the greater Liverpool area, which in some cases stretched well beyond political borders into Salina and Clay.
Next week: A fledgling parks and recreation department sponsors a bottle cap carnival!