Spend just 30 minutes with Roger Blakeley in a personal setting, and it likely will cross your mind that this newcomer may have more to offer Johnson City than the traditional labeling that comes with the title, Parks and Recreation Department director.
Though that is his title, he also is known as a professor of tree biology, the author of five books, a motivational lecturer on leadership and an artist. In what was his very first day on the job Monday, Blakeley, 54, situated himself in a stark Winged Deer Park office. Stacks of books, folders and paperwork had been recently placed on his desk. He seemed very much at ease. Perhaps the more appropriate phrase is at peace.
“If people in Alexandria (Va.) could see what you have here, they would be rushing down here,” he said. “It’s refreshing. This is my first day, and it took me five minutes to get to city hall — three minutes to get from my home to here.”
Blakeley’s wife, Kathleen, passed away July 13. He said she would have wanted him to be here.
“I had a lot of offers,” he said about searching for a job after his loss. “I turned down four places to come here. When I got here, I had a real sense of peace. I felt her presence. The choice was between Johnson City and Fairbanks, Alaska. When I chose Johnson City, Fairbanks called me and asked again if I was interested. They offered me very good money.”
He left his post in Alexandria as Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities deputy director. That city has a population of nearly 150,000. Johnson City is less than half that at just over 63,000.
Blakeley, who has a son who is an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense and a daughter who’s in law school, was born in Odgen, Utah, in a hospital which today, coincidentally, is a park. He attended the University of Oregon, and his first job was with that state as a park ranger.
“That was probably the best job I had or will ever have,” he said. “I could take my dog to work. It was a wonderful way to get started in the industry. I went fishing once and caught a Steelhead. I brought it home and laid it out. The kids were looking at it. My wife looks up at me and says, ‘I don’t think you’re living up to your potential. She was talking about my earning potential.’”
Heeding his wife’s advice, he accepted a job in Yuma, Ariz., as a park superintendent. Blakeley said city officials took him out to the old city dump, which was covered in sagebrush at the time.
“We had come up with about $3 million to cap the landfill, and the city’s entire capital budget was about $20 million,” he said. “At the time, they were going to redo the city sewer system. In over four years, we were able to bring in the soil from the sewer project and use at the landfill site, which saved us $13 million. Hey, when you work together as a city you can do a lot of things.”
When he first set foot in Yuma, the population was about 35,000; when he left for Alexandria it was 90,000. When he moved on, a Yuma newspaper reporter dubbed Blakeley “the visionary behind Yuma’s park system.”
“I don’t know many people that go to city council meetings, but lots of people go to the park,” he said. “The way I feel about parks in general is that they are the face of the community.”
It was here where he began to blossom as a painter, telling his wife at a local exhibit that he could produce better work on most of the pieces “with my fingers.” That is where he had his first show. He was, in fact, the first artist to have a display in the city’s new Yuma Arts Center Museum.
“Kathleen wanted to ‘culture’ me,’” he said.
In Alexandria, Blakeley found himself in a tightly compacted city that had no room to grow but up. Today the city actually is stretching synthetic turf across rooftops to make room for athletics. During his 6 1/2-year tenure, he helped convert fields and parks built in the 1970s into renovated sites with new artificial turf, since they were the only open spaces that could be improved.
The mild-mannered yet business-like Blakeley brings to the table a forward-thinking and proven track record. He is by no means one dimensional. Take for example the fact that he wants to be very much involved with Johnson City’s Princeton Arts Center, and with that desire comes experience.
He will lead more than 60 employees and oversee 25 parks, 46 ball fields, 19 tennis courts, two 18-hole golf courses, seniors’ programs and services, four recreation centers and two swimming pools. And, he is now the overseer of the new $15 million, 657,000-sqaure-foot community center, which is expected to be complete in March.
To that end, what has been the call from both seniors and city officials alike? For a person to guide, to see things through, to listen and to be, as the Yuma reporter put it — a visionary.
That’s a lot to ask from a single department head. Or is it?
Here’s an excerpt from “Managing to Succeed,” one of Blakeley’s books: “In addressing the political authorities there are some key points that have to always be maintained in order to develop trust and the desire to support your ideas. Honesty and integrity will either make or break you.”