LA GRANDE'S CITY PARKS ARE THERE FOR EVERYONECOMMON GROUND
Story and photos by T.L. Petersen of The Observer
They are small and big, noticed and almost ignored, ultra-popular and almost forgotten at times.
They are La Grande's parks, under the care of Parks Supervisor Mark Touhey and his crew of part-time workers, seasonal helpers and whoever he can convince to lend a helping hand.
Touhey's impression is that everyone living in La Grande has his or her favorite park. And almost everyone at some point or another visits a park Â— to play a baseball game, sunbathe, eat a lunch, exercise the dogs, toss some horseshoes, fish, hike or let the kids play on everything from swings and slides to rope bridges and tunnels.
But keeping all those green areas and sand boxes and riversides clean and neat is a full-time effort, rain or shine.
Just ask Abel Mendoza, who's starting his second summer as a full-time seasonal parks employee.
Mendoza was out pulling weeds along the playground edge at Benton Park Wednesday afternoon. He was planning to rake the area under the swings when he finished with the weeds.
"I just like working outside," Mendoza said when asked why he kept coming back. But there are bad days, he confessed. "The worst is just working in the rain."
Touhey, who's been parks supervisor for 5 1/2 years, knows his business and is thankful for the employees he has in La Grande.
Before moving here, Touhey worked as an urban forester in Tigard, as a parks supervisor in other communities and at schools, and has been a private forester.
Now, he depends on himself, Minnie Tucker at City Hall who is assigned half-time to the parks department, the 1 1/2 positions he has at Veterans' Memorial Pool, and the 1 1/2 positions he has taking care of the public grounds all over town.
For any questions about La Grande's history with parks, Touhey will direct you to Russ Sieders or John Smith, the men who have turned their retirement into a second career caring for
La Grande's parks.
Smith laughs when you mention retirement to him.
He's been working and caring for city parks for 21 years. A former member of the Oregon State Police found watering new trees along the Island City strip and at Benton Park Wednesday, Smith said he took a part-time job in the parks when he retired here.
"I planned to give it up when I turned 62," he says. "That was almost 11 years ago."
For Sieders, working in the parks is a way to stay a part of the community, be outside and be active. He retired from Ford Motors in Michigan years ago and moved to La Grande. He's close to 80 years old now, Touhey says, and doing what needs to be done.
"John can work circles around me, I swear," Touhey says.
Touhey stresses that La Grande's parks are for everyone, although he acknowledges some places are more popular than others.
The skate park at Pioneer Park, for example. "The people who use it are part of our population, too," Touhey stresses, while others worry about vandalism there.
"I have kids who shovel the snow there to skate," he says, cautioning non-skaters not to stigmatize those who skateboard.
Often more stressful to Touhey, a dog-owner himself, are park users who won't clean up after their animals Â— several parks even offer free pooper-scooper bags Â— or who can't control their dogs that are running loose.
"We have some chronic people Â… ," Touhey notes. He tries to encourage them to be responsible dog owners.
Along with the problems, there are those Touhey has only praise for. The fields at Pioneer Park, he says, are possible only because of the Optimists. A new pavilion that may lure larger concerts to Riverside is being built by the Rotary Club. The Lions regularly help out at Birnie Park.
And it was the results of a community committee, from fundraising to building, that made possible the fantasy playground at Riverside Park.
But behind the scenes, Touhey and his crew are the ones who deal with problems.
He interrupts a conversation to take a phone call about park lights that are continually going off.
He constantly watches for deals on equipment and ways for keeping the Island City strip trees and bushes flourishing in spite of generally negative conditions.
"That's the most expensive, per square foot, of ground we have," he says. He also has to deal with vandalism that occurs at any of the parks.
And he has dreams, too.
He'd like to see designated camping spots at Morgan Lake, along with a summer campground host there. A trail system around La Grande is another dream, as is a park in the Eagle Cap Estates.
But through it all, Touhey knows one thing.
"La Grande is amazing," he says. "People step up and volunteer. It's just amazing."