Year Awarded: 
2015

John C. Potts is receiving this most prestigious award for his leadership with two outstanding Illinois park systems and for his impact in advancing park and recreation systems throughout the United States.

He is best known by the members of the American Academy for Park & Recreation Administration (AAPRA) for the leadership and service he provided for 12 years as Executive Secretary/Treasurer. In that role, John provided guidance to Academy leaders to ensure stability in achieving the organization’s mission, all of this as a volunteer. Ironically, looking back over the 40 years of his career, John’s volunteer work turned out to be just as significant as his accomplishments within the profession.

John is a life-long resident of Illinois. He was raised in Eureka and served in the U.S. Navy from 1960 to 1966, with three of those years on board the USS Ticonderoga. He was a radioman, and following his discharge he went to work with Bell Telephone as a teletype repairman. One year later, Congress extended the GI Bill to Vietnam veterans, and John enrolled at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale where he earned a B.S. in Management and an M.S. in Outdoor Recreation Resources Management. 

While John’s studies were focused on park management, his first professional position was as Director of Activity Therapy for the Psychiatric Division of the Illinois Department of Corrections, a position he held for five years. He left this job when his father became ill, and he went home to manage the family printing business while also working for the Woodford County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy. In 1976, he became Chief of Park Police for the Peoria Park District, and in 1979, he was promoted to Superintendent of Parks and Planning, where he was responsible for 8,000 acres of parkland; five golf courses; two marinas; a botanical garden; maintenance; planning, design and construction. John was also responsible for intergovernmental contracts where he honed diplomatic skills he would use the rest of his professional career and as a volunteer. Peoria is a Gold Medal-winning park district.

In 1992, John accepted the position of Executive Director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District where he led in the development of the system’s first major master plan, worked with his board in developing a successful foundation, and reorganized the District, resulting in more than 20 local, state and national awards for excellence during the 11 years he led that agency. Although his resume is full of achievements and honors, his real success in Champaign County was in helping the Forest Preserve District become a respected part of the community. He placed great emphasis on having positive relations with all groups and individuals, and he worked to expand educational programming to all residents, but particularly for children who did not live near a forest preserve.

John was known for his low-key, behind-the-scenes methods of problem solving. There were many times he could have taken the grandstanding approach, but he chose not to. He believed the best public relations came from doing a job well, spending tax dollars wisely and treating people right.

As John’s career flourished, he was increasingly recognized and called upon to help lead a number of prestigious organizations. He was selected as an Academy Fellow in 1990, and served on the boards of the National Society of Park Resources and the American Academy Foundation. 

At the state level, he was actively involved for years in the Illinois Association of Park Districts (IAPD) and the Illinois Park and Recreation Association (IPRA). He served on the board of directors of IPRA’s Administrative and Finance Section (1994-1997), and for many years on the IAPD/IPRA Joint Legislative Committee, also serving as chair.

John was a member of the National Symposium Committee and hosted the National Symposium on the Environment in 1994, which was highly effective in bringing environmental issues facing park and recreation leaders to the forefront. The success of that symposium helped establish John as a national leader in the provision of professional education for park and recreation professionals. 

What began with John being a student in the National Institute of Golf Management evolved into his selection to that program’s board of regents where he was a highly effective instructor and twice served as board chair. He was instrumental in curriculum development and is credited with the successful marketing of this program to nearly 5,000 managers of public golf facilities, including a graduate program.

In 2007, John was a charter member of the faculty of the NRPA Directors School where he instructed for three years and still serves as a staff member. With the leadership of John and others, the Directors School was an instant success and continues to be an important program in the development of future leaders in the profession.

He has also become known for what some have referred to as “Pottsieisms” or “pearls of wisdom” for new park system directors. Two that are easy to recall are: “never acquire anything that eats,” and “never use the words free and golf in the same sentence.”

In 2010, the Academy Foundation Board of Directors created the John C. Potts Leadership Development Scholarship. Affectionately called the “Pottsie,” this scholarship enables students lacking financial support to attend the first-year program of the NRPA Directors School.

Since retiring, John has lent his leadership skills to the American Red Cross. In 2005, he was affected by the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, and he called the Red Cross and asked, “How can I help?” What started out as answering phones evolved into being deployed to the Mississippi coastal areas for more than a month, where he and the American Red Cross discovered the skills he had used as a park system director were also useful in disaster relief. He has since been deployed 16 times over the past 10 years to national disaster areas that included those affected by forest fires, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods. He is currently the Regional Lead for Government Liaison for 78 counties in Illinois, Missouri and Iowa and the volunteer counterpart to the Regional Disaster Director.

Few park and recreation leaders have had a greater positive impact on the advancement of the park and recreation field as John Potts. He guided the work of the Academy, including its officers, for 12 years; provided leadership in making dramatic improvements to the Champaign County Forest Preserve District; taught thousands of park and recreation professionals through two national schools; and provided aid and comfort to thousands of families impacted by natural disasters. The field of parks and recreation, and the lives of millions of citizens served by those he has impacted within his profession and through his volunteer work, have improved significantly as a result of his leadership. [September 2015]