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Flashback to the 1970s: A Conversation with the District’s Second Executive Director, Walter C. Johnson


From the 1973 Naperville Park District Summer Program Guide, courtesy of Walter C. Johnson

The first 30 years of the Naperville Park District were led by a succession of 3 executive directors: Ernest Nance, Walter Johnson and Glen Ekey. 


Ernest Nance, first executive director


Walter C. Johnson, second executive director


Glen Ekey, third executive director

The Naperville Park District’s first executive director, Ernest Nance (1934-2012), led the District in acquiring many acres of park land, co-authored the land-cash dedication ordinance, and helped the District win the coveted 1972 National Gold Medal Award for Excellence through the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). He served as executive director from 1968-1972. (Although the District was created by referendum in 1966, the funding for an executive director was not in place until 1968.)

Walter C. Johnson led the District from 1973-1981, followed by Glen Ekey, the longest-serving director in the District’s history, from 1981-1996. Mr.  Ekey was interviewed as part of the timeline video created by NCTV-17 and shown at the Naperville Park District’s State of the Park District address in February 2016. Both former directors were able to attend the August 27, 2016 grand opening of the Park District’s Fort Hill Activity Center.

Looking for insight into the Park District’s history in the 1970s, I was delighted to be able to speak with Mr. Johnson on the phone earlier this year. 

Former Executive Director Walter C. Johnson during his tenure at the Naperville Park District

“It was a busy and exciting time,” said Walter. “At almost every board meeting, our attorney, former Congressman Harris Fawell, would be bringing an issue related to the latest land acquisition. We were trying to gain as much land as possible, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

During Mr. Johnson’s tenure, the Park District acquired nearly 1,000 acres of park land, assisted by state and federal grants.  Johnson said that he remembers sitting in Judge Knoch’s living room to execute the acquisition of Knoch Knolls Park.

Daffodils bloom in the grove of trees at Knoch Knolls Park in the 1970s.

“I was so proud of Knoch Knolls. I treasure that time, saving the open space. And there was a big celebration when we acquired Nike Park.”


Nike Park in 2016 (now called Nike Sports Complex, located at Diehl Rd. and N. Mill St.), showing the original 1975 acquisition from the National Park Service and the 2007 acquisition of 20 additional acres. The northwest corner was acquired with a Land and Water Conservation Fund grant in the 1970s.


Arrowhead Park was one of the many parks added to the District during the 1970s and 1980s.

Another major accomplishment during Walter Johnson’s stay was the formation of the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association (WDSRA). The Naperville Park District worked with several other park districts to form the Association and Johnson became its first chairman of the board.

 WDSRA hosted a wheelchair basketball demonstration with Synergy teams at the grand opening of the Fort Hill Activity Center on Sat., Aug. 27, 2016. The Ft. Hill Activity Center now provides space for WDSRA programs in Naperville.

The Park District’s Naperville Youth Soccer was growing in popularity, and to celebrate its success, Johnson remembers setting up a “super soccer picture,” with the help of Tim West, former editor of the Naperville Sun.  In May 1980 the Park District gathered 600 youth soccer players in uniforms of contrasting colors, to form the shape of a soccer ball on the field.  The District borrowed a cherry picker from the City of Naperville, and a Naperville Sun photographer, Jaime Bernavides, took some overhead shots from the cherry picker. In addition, Tim West actually went up in a helicopter to take aerial photographs of the scene. Tim recalls the experience in a 2001 article in the Naperville Sun, saying that he ended up taking the pictures while harnessed to the helicopter, hanging by the straps with the door open, so that nothing would interfere with his photo. 


The Super Soccer Picture from May, 1980, courtesy of Walter C. Johnson.

After leaving the Naperville Park District in 1981, former Director Walter Johnson went on to serve as Great Lakes Regional Director with the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) for 20 years, concluding his NRPA career as Chief Operating Officer.  With a passion for aquatics, he started the first National Aquatics Conference, developed the National Aquatic Section of NRPA, helped form the Association of Aquatic Professionals, and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.  After retiring in 2003 he remains active in NRPA on the Gold Medal oversight committee and in the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration, as well as working part time as a guest services ambassador for the Chicago Cubs.  


Thank you, Walter Johnson, for all that you accomplished to help the Naperville Park District become what it is today! And thank you to Ernest Nance, Glen Ekey and all of the staff and commissioners throughout the Naperville Park District’s history who have worked hard to transform the Park District from vision to reality.

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