Peggy Lynch’s life-long love of parks started when she was growing up in St. Paul’s Midway area, where her family biked from park to park in the summer and rode toboggans and ice-skated in Como Park in the winter.
“I was 4 when we moved from New Jersey and Chicago, and my mother said this was a cold place, but we were going to get used to it, get outside and enjoy it,” said Lynch, who will be feted Monday night at Como Park upon her retirement as executive director of the Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County.
She was the nonprofit’s first executive director and ran the organization for 28 years out of her Highland Park home. She’s turning the organization over to Susan Audette but will spend a few months helping with the transition. Eventually, she hopes to keep her hand in by joining the Friends’ board.
We talked Monday morning, as she sweated a bit about making a speech at the retirement fete. “Public speaking has always been the hardest part for me,” she said.”
The event is at the Como Park West Picnic Shelter, 1199 Midway Parkway (Horton between Hamline and Lexington), from 5:30 to 8 p.m., with a 6 p.m. ceremony.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
MinnPost: The Friends grew out of community activism, when you and other citizens protested a 1984 plan to build a high-rise at the Watergate Marina on the Mississippi River. How did the group evolve?
Peggy Lynch: We wondered: why are we always behind on these issues? Let’s get ahead and see what we can do about protecting parks before the problems arise. So Truman Porter went to the St. Paul Foundation [and its head] Paul Verret and got a $25,000 donation. I was the only one in the group not working for money at the time, so I became executive director, somewhat by default. But it was wonderful for me, doing something I really loved.
MP: That was in 1985. What had you done before that?
PL: I had worked as an occupational therapist for several years but left to raise four children. Eventually, I joined the St. Paul League of Women Voters, because I was interested in government. The women there were such great mentors. Over the years, I spent a lot of time at Port Authority meetings.
MP: What was the first Friends project?
PL: We didn’t want the city to build the police station in Highland Park. We lost that one, but it led to the effort to get the city to approve the “No Net Loss of Parkland” policy. So we lost the battle but won the war.
MP: How has the No Net Loss policy worked?
PL: It worked the way we wanted, until the city leased Valley playground to the Boys and Girls Clubs. After that we got the city and parks department to specify how parkland could be leased; so we were able to shore it up. I hate to think what would have happened over the years without it. Sometimes people drive by a park and see no one there and they think we should close it. So during the recession, there might have been pressure to sell off some of the smaller parks. I heard from people in other cities who wonder what they can do to save their parks. Usually by then, it’s too late.
MP: Have there been lost opportunities for the Friends?
PL: Dickerman Park, a stretch along University Avenue going east from Fairview. It’s dedicated parkland, donated by the Dickerman family in 1909. But there were lots of abuses by the city and businesses over the years, giving permission for parking lots and other uses that wouldn’t be allowed today. But now that the city is looking at parkland along the new Central Corridor [light rail] corridor, they’ll be looking for recreational opportunities there.
MP: Do the Friends get involved in safety issues in the parks? I’m remembering the landslide this spring at Lilydale Park, when two schoolchildren were killed.
PL: If anybody had known that was going to happen, those kids wouldn’t have been in the park that day. It was the tragedy of tragedies. I’d served on the task force for Lilydale. There’s been no building or development on top of that slope, so safety didn’t really come up. Now we’re all waiting for the geologist’s report to see if it can open again and how we can protect people there.
MP: Do you have a favorite park?
PL: The parks are all so different. Como Park was my favorite growing up, but now it’s so hard to choose, so I don’t think I can.
MP: Do you have a staff?
PL: I’m the staff. We’ve always had one part-time employee, me, and I work from my house, with my phone.
MP: Where will the office be, now that you’re leaving?
PL: The new director, Susan Audette, who actually started Aug. 1, has a home office, too. She’s worked for the Audubon Society and has lobbied at the Capitol. I’ll stay on a few months to help out, and then join the board. But I can’t join the board until I’m off the payroll.
MP: Any advice for Susan?
PL: Don’t make enemies.
MP: What’s next for you?
PL: Give me two weeks to rest before I think about it. I’m going to Glacier Park for a visit soon. I’d worked there when I was in college. Other than that, I don’t know yet.