An Interview with Bonnie Noble

Peoria Park District
Photo by Kira Kwon

A dedicated steward of Illinois’ largest park district, Bonnie Noble retired last month after 43 years with the Peoria Park District, having served as executive director for the last 24 years. She was first elected to the Board of Trustees in 1973, became board president in 1979, and served in that capacity until 1992, when she assumed the role of executive director.

During her tenure as executive director, the Peoria Park District received three National Gold Medal Awards (in 1994, 2001 and 2010) for excellence in park and recreation management, as well as accreditation as one of the first Illinois Distinguished Park Districts. Under her leadership, the Peoria Park District completed the Africa! expansion at Peoria Zoo, made the dream of the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum a reality, established the RiverPlex and expanded the Rock Island Trail, among many other accomplishments. All the while, she says she kept the words of Walt Disney close to her heart: “You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful places in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality.”

How did you develop a passion for the outdoors?
My love for parks and recreation started quite simply… I had the best times when I was outside. Growing up in River Forest, Illinois, I loved going for walks. Our family made regular trips to the local forest preserve. My school was right next to that preserve, and we made the most of it. I have fond memories of visiting the Morton Arboretum, and the Des Plaines River was very close… I was really drawn to the mystery of it all. I was a Girl Scout and a Mariner Scout. I was outdoors a lot as a child. I learned to fish and camp.

My first job was as a 15-year-old with the Park District of Oak Park. I was a playground monitor, and my first boss was Bob Toalson, who later became the head of the National Recreation and Park Association. He was the kind of person who always said hello, made everyone feel important and was a great role model for me. He was truly a visionary in the field and helped to shape what parks and rec should be in communities. He talked a lot about leisure activities and their role. He really made people think.

What led you to pursue a degree in recreation and park administration?
When I went to the University of Illinois, my intention was not to study parks and recreation. Oddly enough, though, I crossed paths again with Mr. Toalson, who had moved there to teach at the University and to run the Champaign Park District. We talked about my love for both sports and the environment, and I saw that parks and recreation was a natural field to choose.

What inspired you to run for the Peoria Park District Board of Trustees? 
I ran for the Park District board in 1973 after I had talked about it for so long that my friends finally told me that I needed to take the leap. Because the opportunity lined up nicely with my education and my passions, I thought it was the perfect way to give back as a volunteer leader to the community... and I thought I could do a good job.

Did you foresee a lifelong career with the organization?
I really don’t think I thought about the long term. I just got caught up dealing with issues as they came on. One led to another, and time passed.

How did your service on the board inform your leadership after becoming executive director in 1992?
Serving on the board helped me to understand my new role and hit the ground running. As a trustee, my role focused on finance, legislation and policy. By contrast, the chief executive role really determines agency efficiency, staff effectiveness, operational efficiency, and ultimately, the quality of the board’s membership.

How did your role change or evolve over the years?
As we grew, the job got bigger, too. Even though it did take time away from my family, I was able to expose them to some amazing experiences as a result of this job. For example, my kids were the first kids down the waterslide at Lakeview Family Aquatic Center. They also got to bottle-feed and play with a baby lion when it was born at the Zoo (Shhh… that’s not allowed anymore!).

You’ve helped to bring a number of lengthy, long-term projects to fruition. What were some of the challenges you faced in getting such large-scale projects off the ground?
Many of our large-scale projects seem to have had some pretty poor timing; it seems several launched just as the economy slowed. We have been very lucky to have had committed volunteer partners who stayed the course and kept going to get the job done.

The key to success in my mind is to build a team that cares about the project and mostly cares about each other. Perseverance is the key, along with knowing in my heart of hearts that these projects were so important to the community. You have to fight through trials and roadblocks. If you’re a part of a team that values each other, you get over those things more quickly.

What are your fondest memories or greatest accomplishments from your career with the Park District?
There are so many things that I think of when I think of my time here… It’s really hard to pick out just a few. Most big projects took great time, effort and personal sacrifice by our staff.

The Africa! expansion at Peoria Zoo is certainly one of the District’s achievements that I’m most proud of. I am glad to have overseen our move from Glen Oak Pavilion, where we had staff literally working in closets, to a larger space, and in turn, being able to bring the dream of the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum to reality. The bridge over Knoxville and what it does for our trail system is a highlight. The RiverPlex is, too, especially the amazing partnership with OSF that serves as its foundation.

Three Gold Medals. Wow. These represent both highs and lows for our District and our community. They came at times when our organization and our community needed a morale boost, and they helped to highlight some real positives. 1994’s Gold Medal came on the heels of an economic downturn associated with a long Caterpillar strike and declining home values. With our win came a great deal of pride that spread from the inside out. It also marked the 100th anniversary of our Park District.

Really, though, the greatest accomplishment as far as I’m concerned is the positive impact our District has had on its people… those I work with every day and those that come to our parks and facilities to escape the world for a while.

What do you see as the Park District’s role in the community? As Peoria changed over the years, how did the Peoria Park District help shape that change?
Our role is stated really well by our mission statement: to enrich life in our community through stewardship of the environment and through provision of quality recreation and leisure opportunities.

Peoria is a great place to live and our Park District has grown to provide a diverse set of programs and entertainment offerings that rival those found in much larger cities. Likewise, we have so many volunteer and employment opportunities that we are able to offer to give people access to new experiences.

In my time at the Park District, I have seen more emphasis placed on the riverfront and the surrounding areas there. Certainly, our partnerships with the City to program the Peoria RiverFront and the Gateway Building help to make our river more inviting. I am also very proud of the work we are doing with OSF to make the RiverPlex not only a premier wellness and fitness center, but also ensure that we are making a quality first impression for visitors to our city.

In years past, the District has been named Employer of the Year by the AAIM Employers’ Association. What’s the secret to building a great company culture?
For me, it’s not a secret. It’s really caring for the people with whom you work… and more importantly, listening to them.

As you began to look toward retirement, what steps did you take to ensure the PPD was in the best possible position to serve the community in the future?
I’m very proud of every member of my team. They all have such great things to offer and they all share my passion for the Park District. I know I’m leaving the organization in good hands.

We’ve been very fortunate to have really strong leaders in our organization. In recent years, we’ve been forced to shrink our workforce and do more with less. While this has increased strain on our staff, it has also made them build their own capacities to serve.

What are your future plans? How do you plan to stay active in retirement?
I’ve been lucky to travel a lot in my life; however, I think the first thing I might do is clean out my closet! I look forward to spending time with my grandchildren, and I imagine that I’ll spend time volunteering as well… After all, volunteerism is the truest form of recreation. iBi

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