As president of the Peoria Park District Board of Trustees, Robert Johnson helps guide the oldest and largest park district in the State of Illinois. A trustee for 25 years, the Peoria native was elected to the position in 2019, the first African American to ever serve in this capacity. Having grown up with an appreciation for nature and the outdoors, Johnson is dedicated to providing the same opportunities to young people today. He has been active with the Illinois Association of Park Districts for two decades, extending his love for parks and recreation to the state level and developing relationships between state and local leaders. An advocate for equity, inclusiveness and diversity, he places great emphasis on environmental stewardship, financial responsibility, and stronger public utilization of park facilities.
Tell us more about your childhood, family, hobbies and interests.
I was born in Peoria at St. Francis Hospital. I grew up in the church, and I always had a desire to serve and help others. My father died when I was 14, and my mother died when I was 23. My paternal grandparents were a minister and a civil rights activist, and they were a great influence in my life. I loved horses and would go horseback riding with friends and my future wife.
I was involved in student government at Manual High School, running for several offices and getting involved in various other activities. I was a member of the Peoria Boys Club and vice president of the Keystone Club. Even before I got to Manual from Trewyn Grade School, I had a job at Steak ‘n Shake as a car hop, working from 5pm to midnight. I had a paper route as well. I met my wife Gail at Manual, and we were married two years after high school. We will celebrate our 45th wedding anniversary this September.
What initially sparked your love for parks and recreation?
I was a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout—this is when I really became interested in the land. I enjoyed camping outdoors, getting outside of the city, and learning more about nature. I remember camping at Camp Wokanda in my youth—not knowing that some years later I would be one of the decision makers in purchasing this land for the Peoria Park District. To this day, I enjoy camping, hiking and horseback riding. I introduced my family to camping and we took many family vacations all over the country. My grown children still talk about those memories today.
What first inspired you to run for the Peoria Park District Board of Trustees?
Because our children were in the magnet school, my wife and I became very involved in school activities. There were also problems back in the ‘80s in our neighborhood on the south side; thus we became involved in helping to form a new neighborhood association, getting our neighbors involved to help better our community. I was asked to fill a seat on the park board representing the south side in 1995. The Board of Trustees interviewed me and I was accepted. When my term was completed, I ran and was elected.
Describe some of the significant projects and accomplishments achieved during your 25 years on the board. What are you most proud of?
One of the projects I’m most proud of is the Gwynn Family Aquatic Center, the $1.1 million pool and recreation area near Carver Center, which was developed with complete ADA compliance. Being that we were a river city, I felt it was very important for all children to learn how to swim. I learned to swim at the Park District’s Logan Pool, not knowing that years later, I would be part of the renovation of these pools.
I’m also very proud of the new Peoria Zoo. It has helped a lot of families who don’t have transportation to travel to the zoo in St. Louis or Chicago because of economic issues. I was very pleased with how it turned out, making it affordable for everybody to come out and have a good outing. Then the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum came online, helping small children go through different stages of exploration and discovery. I was excited about that as well.
Of course, the RiverPlex Recreation and Wellness Center has helped a lot of people with exercise. One third of their memberships have to do with a scholarship—if people didn’t have the money or couldn’t afford it—and that has worked out pretty well. It has been about 20 years since the RiverPlex was built.
Other projects I am proud of include the acquisition and development of Singing Woods Nature Preserve and Tawny Oaks Field Station; building the Golf Learning Center; redeveloping Donovan Golf Course; developing the Bonnie Noble Center for Park District Administration and Stadium Park; and improvements to Bradley, Glen Oak, Lakeview, Rocky Glen and Riverfront parks.
How do you view the role of the park district in a community?
The role of a park district is to create vibrancy in the community and give people a sense of quality of life. It’s an economic driver as well. When people are making decisions to move to an area, they want to make sure they get good, quality recreation. Does it have a park district? What type of programming do they have? What does it offer to the community? I think we’re most fortunate in that area because we provide a lot of services and economics that are very important to the City of Peoria. I think a park district is extremely important to any community.
What is your philosophy as board president? What factors are most important as you make decisions?
One of the things I said when I ran for the position is that I want to make sure we preserve the land. Peoria Park District is the oldest park district in Illinois, and we’re also the largest. I want to make sure we preserve it so 125 years from now, it’s still here. We need to make sure we’re being good stewards and taking care of the land, not selling it off to developers. It needs to be around so generations after us can still enjoy it.
What projects are on the horizon in 2021? What most excites you?
We are doing some things at Donovan Park with The Kim Group, and Cyd’s restaurant is there. We are starting a sculpture park at Donovan—we received a sculpture from the Urbana Park District to help us start out. I’m very excited about the sculpture park getting started. Another group is getting together to put in a performing arts stage. As we get those projects going at Donovan Park, it is going to be great.
Tell us about your leadership role with the Illinois Association of Park Districts.
In 2001, I was instrumental in bringing the Illinois Association of Park Districts’ three-day annual conference to Peoria. More than 4,000 participants came in from all over the state. I was part of the program committee, where you would set up the different educational sessions of the conference. I later moved on to the conference committee itself, and I now serve as co-chair, but then COVID hit. I am excited to be able to contribute on a state level.
Anything else you wish to add?
I just really have a passion for the Peoria Park District, and the many different types of people from all walks of life who we help. We’d like to get approval to bring the Fourth of July fireworks back to Glen Oak Park. We want to bring back the Municipal Band concerts so people can sit out in the park at Glen Oak Amphitheatre and relax, listen to the band, and enjoy the camaraderie. It will be nice when everyone can come together and see each other again. There is so much in parks and recreation that we contribute to this community, and I’m just so proud. PM