In 2000, Jan Arnold left her job at the Wheeling Park District where she had worked as the superintendent of recreation facilities. When she returned to the park district world, she hoped it would be as an executive director, and the Park District of Oak Park announced last week that she will soon get that chance.
Arnold, 44 and an Oak Parker, said she was shocked when Gary Balling announced he was retiring from the park district’s top post in November, but realized it might be a while before the opportunity came up again.
“I knew it was an opportunity that I had to at least put my name in the hat,” she said.
A native of Kentucky, where she said park districts don’t exist, Arnold has lived and worked in several states as well as overseas. She was chosen from over 90 candidates who applied for the position in Oak Park.
She said her interests in parks and recreation started when she was in college at Murray State University in Kentucky. Arnold had always played sports, and decided to earn her degree in therapeutic recreation and youth agency administration.
“Recreation was an opportunity to do something that I love and allow the community to grow from it,” Arnold said.
From there, she got an internship with the U.S. Navy in Japan, where she worked in athletics and fitness. She returned to the states to get a master’s degree in sports administration from Indiana University and then went to Florida to work for the U.S. Air Force.
With the Air Force, Arnold said she got the best training she’s ever received and worked in many facets of recreation. She ran an aquatics center, youth center, bowling alley and more, and said it gave her a lot of exposure to customer service and program quality.
After transferring to a Virginia Air Force base for a year, Arnold moved to Illinois in 1993. She has since earned a master’s in business administration and worked for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago and the Wheeling Park District. She currently serves as the executive director of the Illinois Park and Recreation Association.
And because she’s the mother of a 6-year-old son, Arnold said she’s familiar with many park district activities in Oak Park, from the Santa trolley to the annual Ridgeland Common ice show to ceramics at the Dole Center. An Oak Parker for more than two years, she’s also on the park district’s Citizens Committee and the PTO at Longfellow School.
At a special meeting last week to approve her employment agreement, Arnold told the park district board she wants to make sure programs are provided to all ages and capital projects are rolled out. Before she takes over on May 29, she’s got plenty of meet-and-greet events to talk to residents all over the community. Arnold said she’s excited to find out what people love about the park district.
“It’s about getting out and talking to people and hearing what’s on their minds,” she said
And like Balling, she’ll continue to seek partnerships with area organizations.
“I feel like the district will move ahead,” Balling said at the meeting. He added he’s known Arnold for several years and she will bring energy, enthusiasm and a depth of knowledge to the position.
Other board members agreed, saying Arnold is very qualified for the big shoes she will fill.