When he was appointed Naperville Park District's executive director in September 2008, Ray McGury joined an agency that was changing leaders with the same frequency as some people change their socks.
McGury, a former Naperville police officer and most recently the Bolingbrook police chief, seemed an unlikely pick for the park post.
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True, he had a 30-year background in law enforcement, but he had virtually no experience in the parks and recreation field other than a failed bid for the park board in 1996. His appointment to the district's top spot in 2008 raised more than a few eyebrows.
Since then, though, McGury seems to have eased all of those concerns. The turmoil that plagued the district for years has disappeared and any speculation about his future with the district has all but been erased with the signing on Feb. 23 of a three-year contract extension that aims to keep him in his post until 2015.
The Daily Herald recently spoke with McGury about his park district career. This is the first of two parts.
Q. You've got a long history with Naperville dating to your days as a police officer. How did your relationship with the park district come about?
A. I started with the Naperville Police Department in 1985 after coming from a smaller department in Cook County. I was fortunate to get hired, and during my time with the police department, my wife and I had three boys.
As with most parents, I was fortunate enough to be able to volunteer a lot with the park district. I was working a lot of nights, so I would coach in the evenings before I went to work and I was always involved in the sporting aspect.
I also got involved in some different ad hoc committees because I was a fan of the park district. I always used the parks when I grew up in Chicago. Like any guy, I loved the outdoors, so it was a natural progression for me to volunteer with my kids.
Q. Eventually you attempted to join the park board as a commissioner. How did that lead to you becoming executive director?
A. In 1996 I ran for the park board and I lost to Mary Wright and Sally Kirk. So there was a connection even before I left Naperville in 2005 and took over as the chief of police in Bolingbrook.
During that time, in July or August of 2007, I heard the director position was going to open up and at that time, I was in my 27th year of law enforcement. Law enforcement was real good to my family and I, but I was looking for other opportunities.
Q. The park district was going through some tumultuous times, especially with what seemed like a revolving door of directors. Were you sure what you were getting into?
A. I just saw it as a different challenge. I did read about the park district going through some turmoil and the fact that maybe the next executive director might not have to have a degree in parks and rec, but they were looking more for a manager and a leader. I thought I would really love to give back to Naperville in that fashion. I figured it would be a stretch because it would generate a lot of candidates from around the country.
I submitted my name and was not successful and disappointed, but that's part of life. (The park board appointed Daniel Betts, who had been working in Denver.) So I continued being the chief in Bolingbrook. Still living in Bolingbrook, I was following what was going on with Daniel Betts in the newspaper. I don't know Daniel. I've never met him. I don't know his circumstances and don't need to speak to that because it would be wrong for me.
I did hear that there were some issues and he left. At that point, I spoke to a couple of commissioners who I saw in the community and they said they wanted me to re-interview.
Q. Did it sting to already have been passed over for the position?
A. It did. Eventually though, I said "What does it hurt to go back in and talk to them?" So I did that and I got a call saying "We'd really like you to take the position as executive director."
What made me decide to go ahead with the interview was the fact that it forced me to check my ego at the door because I knew there were great experts in the park and rec field. I'm in here three years. I just came back from a national conference where 90 percent of the people were brighter than I am when it comes to parks and rec in terms of playgrounds, programming and fertilizer.
But I like to say that I know how to lead and I know how to manage. I've been pretty successful in the way I've done that, thanks to my mom and dad. I credit them with instilling good values.
Have I always made the right decisions? No. Of course not. So yeah, if they were looking for someone to steady the ship, whatever I did in the (first) interview just did not mesh with them. But I got over that and gave it another shot.
Q. Did it take long to get acquainted with the organization and inner workings of the park district?
A. I came in 2008 and sat back and got to know the staff and the operation. Spent a lot of time in the field with the parks department. I spent a lot of time in the community relations area during soccer registration just to see what a zoo that turns into. There's 1,100 people at once trying to register and (I saw) how IT handles that. I just got to know the overall organization.
Q. Several of your predecessors seemed to have a difficult time grasping all of the aspects. How did you do it?
A. The key for me was a couple things. Some past directors may have been at a disadvantage because they didn't know the community as well as I do.
I can pick up a phone and call (City Manager) Doug Krieger. I can call (Naperville Unit District 203 Superintendent) Mark Mitrovich or (Indian Prairie Unit District 204 Superintendent) Kathy Birkett and we have a relationship. We may not agree on everything, but there's an understanding. We understand there's all these different pots of money that taxpayers throw their money into but ultimately it's one big pot.
So I knew Naperville. I knew the community leaders and I think that gives me an advantage over past directors.
Does the next person that comes in here have to be from Naperville or this park district? No. I dismiss the idea that Naperville shuns outsiders. I don't see that. (Naperville Police Chief) Dave Dial is a perfect example. He's been here over 20 years and he came from Colorado and he's a phenomenal police chief. There's lots of different people that have come from lots of different areas.
Q. Have you been able to take anything away from the styles of your predecessors?
A. Glen Ekey is probably, in my estimation, the greatest executive director Naperville has ever had. I would model myself after Glen only because Glen was very visible in the community, was here a long time, understood the community.
Q. You talk a lot about being visible. Does that come from your days as a police officer?
A. I did a program called Coffee with the Chief in Bolingbrook. One of the things I learned from that is that one of the raps against law enforcement, especially those that sit in high places, is that they insulate themselves. They don't get out into the community. I did a thing once a month and I would alternate days and nights so people would have access to me.
I had 50 people showing up at a coffee shop, and people would come up to me and tell me about a house they thought drugs were being dealt from. You say to yourself, "Why do you wait so long?" but they just like the access.
I had this group of women, probably in their 70s, and they were my groupies. They made me feel good about myself because they would show up at every meeting. They would have pound cake and coffee and hang on my every word. Then they got involved in National Night Out. It's that kind of stuff.
Q. Not everyone was cheering you on when you arrived. Two of your commissioners voted against you and Bill Wald, CEO of the Illinois Park and Recreation Association, questioned whether you could "walk the walk."
A. I haven't talked to him in well over a year. He was going to run for our board and then decided not to. Bill wasn't complimentary to me when I got here.
He later sent me a very nice email that said "I love what you're doing." I don't even know if I still have it, but we did eventually talk and have a good conversation and he was very complimentary. I don't necessarily hold that against him.
I had two commissioners vote against me when I first got here. I think Commissioner (Marie) Todd is very passionate and well-versed in parks and she felt I needed a parks and rec background. I hope I've changed her mind since.
Q. The community was also buzzing, soon after your hire, about your background and the lack of experience in parks and recreation. How did you gain the trust of your staff, most of whom have more experience than yourself?
A. I walked in and the first thing I did was promise my staff that I would allow them to do their jobs. My job is to work with the board and get them focused on policy and vision. We're rowing the boat and they're directing it.
If the board says, "Ray, we need to reduce the budget 5 percent," I'm going to do that. I may argue, but ultimately my job is to implement the board policy and vision. The relationship I have with the board has helped. This board works well together even with the new faces. We're all starting to learn the dynamics. It's not a rubber stamp on any one thing.
More of my work has come with the board than it has with staff. I said to the board when I interviewed a second time, "If you're looking for someone to come in and tell you I think we should have a judo program and we should offer it Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 4 to 6, I'm not your guy." I'm not your guy for that because I don't have that expertise.
Next: McGury talks about his goals, his challenges, and where he sees the park district going.