Rantoul rec director retiring after 39 years

Rantoul rec director retiring after 39 years

When Rich Thomas joined the Rantoul Recreation Department as program manager, the department was charged with oversight of the town swimming pool and a few parks in town.

That's about it.

Since then it's grown a little. OK, a lot.

Today (for a few more weeks at least), Thomas oversees a program that has greatly expanded in scope and nature.

Operation of countless ball teams on numerous diamonds throughout town. Mowing of more than 1,000 acres of village property. Operation of the Youth Center, Forum Fitness Center, Recreation Building and The Hap Parker Family Aquatic Center built 10 years ago. Volleyball, basketball, dance and swim programs. Maintenance of the entire village fleet of vehicles. Camp Rantoul, one of the village's signature events. All of it under Thomas' watch.

Soon, however, it will be someone else's turn. Thomas plans to retire June 28 after a little more than 39 years. Mayor Chuck Smith last week announced Luke Humphrey, the village fitness/aquatic and adult recreation superintendent, would succeed Thomas. Andy Graham will serve as assistant superintendent.

Thomas, who is 63, started as Rec Department program manager in February 1974, when the department was separate from village government and had its own governing board. The department had been created to build the former Wabash Park swimming pool.

Thomas was promoted to his current position in 1976.

"The Civic Center (which now houses Community Service Center) had just been built," Thomas said. "We worked out of there."

Lots of things changed when Chanute Air Force Base closed in 1993. Perhaps one of the good things about the base closure was that it opened up more programs to the general public. Buildings and programs that formerly had been open only to the military were now open to everyone.

The Youth Center, Forum Fitness Center and Recreation Building are now run by the department.

Humphrey said it was a big job for Thomas and the department.

"Back in '93 the department (had) a huge transition when it acquired all the properties," Humphrey said. "He was very hands-on with the building of the aquatic center and things like that."

The department also took over operation of the town's baseball program, which then was Little League and T-ball. Girls were added to the program, and the first year they played baseball before switching to softball the following year.

"Now we have a big girls fast-pitch league (for ages 6-15), and the boys have baseball and T-ball," Thomas said. T-ball is also open to girls.

"We've got over 600 kids. We had a high of 800. The program's been big for a long time."

Thomas said the recession hurt numbers in those programs, but he is seeing a rebound.

"The biggest adult program is co-rec and women's volleyball," Thomas said. "We probably have 12-16 co-rec teams every year, plus 12-16 co-rec softball teams."

Men's slow-pitch softball, which used to be "huge" in town with three leagues, has died off like it has in many other parts of the country.

The village's ball diamonds have been "redone."

"We have built the high schol baseball field and softball field on Diamond 3 in Wabash Park into arguably the best in Central Illinois," Thomas said.

The community has at least nine ball diamonds used for baseball and softball plus two T-ball fields near the Youth Center.

The department used schools to hold many programs until the Forum and the Youth Center became available.

Youth basketball is also offered. The department has also seen an upsurge in its dance program.

Over the years the department has added a number of parks and other recreation areas such as the former parade ground south of the Business Center, where soccer matches are played, Heritage Lake on the south side of the former base and the Bill Seeber soccer fields.

The program operates a soccer program that includes about 120 youngsters, but Thomas said interest in it has not grown.

"Without soccer in the high school, it's hard to maintain it," he said, noting that the school tried to develop a program, but there was not enough interest.

The department built the soccer fields with the help of the U.S. Soccer Federation and Bill Seeber, who made a sizable donation. It is there, bordering the Quarters Inn and The Linden banquet facility, that the University of Illinois football team holds Camp Rantoul, which has been held under three head coaches.

A new Seeber Fields lockerroom facility was recently built east of the soccer fields, which the Illini and visiting high school camp teams use. Numerous high school programs use the facility for camps.

"There's a big camp coming next week," Thomas said, the Tolono Unity camp. "There are at least three more (camps) in late July."

Camp Rantoul is marking its 10th anniversary. Former Illini Coach Ron Turner, who came to Illinois after stints in the NFL, wanted a camp experience for the Illini, and Rantoul was deemed the ideal place.

"We put irrigation in and fencing up," said Thomas, who noted that he and former Village Administrator Gary Adams, with the aid of Ron Luna, put in much of the irrigation.

The Rec Department also developed and operates a 95-lot Prairie Pines campground at the site of an old trailer park on the former base.

Bob Nuckols came in when the department took over operations of the Youth Center in the spring of 1994 "and was an integral part of getting it started," according to Thomas. When Nuckols retired, Graham took over that operation.

The Forum was a fitness center open to military personnel and families.

After the base closed, "we cleaned that up and got it ready to go in December 1993," Thomas said.

The Recreation Building housed, among other things, an auto hobby shop. The building now houses the main department offices as well as the village fleet maintenance facility and a wood shop. The building is also available for meetings.

Heritage Lake is a former Air Force recreation area.

"That's a very nice area that's used for a lot of rentals, weddings and company parties and things like that," Thomas said.

Ten years ago the new Hap Parker Family Aquatic Center was built, and the old pool at Wabash Park was demolished.

The Recreation Department employs eight people fulltime and three mechanics doing fleet work, but as Thomas said, has "an army of part-time help. Maybe up to 150 total from scorekeepers to life guards and mowers" and people on the Youth Center staff.

"We give a lot of kids their first work opportunity," the superintendent said. "I think it's important for kids ... to learn how to show up on time ... do their job."

The department now manages nine village parks. Thomas said a goal of his to have a park in walking distance of every neighborhood in town was not realized, but came close.

"We built parks wherever we could," Thomas said.

A program is only as good as its staff.

"I've just had some outstanding people to work with — Leonard Schmidt, Ron Luna and Debbie Briggs. They've all retired from the department. They were just great people. They took their job seriously. They cared about it, and I think our department showed," Thomas said.

He said people such as Humphrey and Graham are of the same ilk — people who are from Rantoul originally and care a great deal about the programs and the community.

"They're from here. They want to be here," Thomas said.

Humphrey said it has "been a tremendous joy to work with Rich for the past nine years. He gave me the tools to succeed and just let me do my job."

Humphrey remembers his first day on the job as aquatics director in May 2004 — about a year after the pool opened.

"He told me to come to the pool," Humphrey said. "He was in the mechanical room and the line to the acid pump had broke, so my first experience was to fix one of the acid lines that was spraying around the room."

He said Thomas wasn't in a very good mood that day. But things got better.

"Rich has really tried ... to make sure the people of Rantoul have had ... the best recreational opportunities," Humphrey said.

Rantoul Mayor Smith said Thomas has helped to establish relationships "with a broad variety of sports enthusiasts throughout the state of Illinois while promoting the sporting and recreation facilities of Rantoul. His continued support for Rantoul is still reflected today by the strong relationship between the village of Rantoul and the University of Illinois."

Smith said Thomas is a good friend who did an outstanding job and will be missed.

The future. The wood shop at the Recreation Building, the golf course, the honey-do list and working with fast-pitch softball pitchers. That's what you're likely to find Thomas doing in retirement. Plus, he might take advantage of some business opportunities that relatives are presenting.

Thomas, who is a native of Paxton, and his wife, Cheryl, have three daughters — Amanda, who is a teacher in Topeka, Kan.; Jessica, a corporate nurse in Chicago; and Victoria, who started her own business doing toy design and graphics for children's books, in Chicago.

dhinton@rantoulpress.com

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