In 1978, the Channahon Park District had one park in the works, Community Park, which sat on farmland. It had a farmhouse for an office and a shed to hold equipment.
Movies in the Park events used 8 mm film, swim lessons were at the Manor Hotel, recreation programs were held at local schools and small day camps had been established – all run by a board of commissioners since 1971.
Also in 1978, Chuck Szoke graduated from what was then the College of St. Francis, and he was brought on to run the Park District for Channahon.
On Friday, Szoke celebrated his retirement from the Channahon Park District, after 40 years as the recreation director and then executive director.
“When the Park District formed, the board did things on its own. We had to get somebody who knew what they were doing,” Board of Commissioners member Ron Lehman said. “His reputation, like his career, is one of the best.”
Szoke said this job was the one and only job he held in his adult career, something his generation was accustomed to but is not common in the modern day. He remembered his first day.
“When I came to town, Community Park was just getting started and had its first piece of equipment delivered but not put together,” Szoke said.
Szoke said he cannot take credit for all of the successes over the past 40 years. He said the board of commissioners had grand visions, but his focus, no matter the project or program, was always “on youth and families to create smiles and memorable experiences.”
Lehman said he was most impressed with the way Szoke collaborated with other local agencies.
“It’s not what he built; it’s the total package,” Lehman said.
The Heritage Crossing Field House was a collaboration with Channahon School District 17 and hosts visitors from the across the country to see how the local park district and school can coexist in one location.
Szoke said there was not one event that spurred his choice to join the ranks of retirees, but he said people have always told him that when it was time, he would know, and he said he was ready to start his next chapter in life.
“This is not a script or agenda, I want to see what will pique my interest,” Szoke said.
Mike Leonard replaced Szoke as executive director this month. Leonard comes to the district from Palos Heights, where he was the director of parks and recreation. He also has worked various jobs for the Lemont, Channahon and Bedford park districts.