'Visionary' Elk Grove parks leader Jack Claes dies at 96

Jack Claes grew up in New Jersey, captivated by views of the Manhattan skyline and Palisades Amusement Park.

A lifetime was born in those moments.

The first park district director in Elk Grove Village history died Sunday of natural causes at the age of 96, leaving behind a legacy that joyfully lives on.

For 29 years, Claes released a creative stream of nationally acclaimed village projects that endure to this day for people of all ages.

Talk to those who knew Claes, and one word consistently joins the conversation: visionary.

"He was so far ahead of his time," said Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson. "I've never seen someone with that kind of foresight. He was a true visionary."

Claes was named the Elk Grove Park District's first director in 1967. During his tenure he oversaw the development of numerous cornerstone projects, including Pirates' Cove theme park, Rainbow Falls Waterpark, Fox Run Golf Links and Fountain Square Park.

Claes worked tirelessly right up until his retirement in 1995. The Jack A. Claes Pavilion, opened in 1994, was one of his final projects and is named in his honor.

Johnson's father, George, was friends with Claes since the 1960s and shared a love of boating. Claes, who served as a pallbearer at Johnson's mother's funeral in 1984, remains an influence, the mayor said.

"Jack always said to keep your eyes open and look for things to integrate into the community and make them better," Johnson said.

Born in 1924, Claes volunteered for the Marines in 1943 and served during World War II in Okinawa, Guam and Eniwetok. For the rest of his life, Claes showed pride in his service by making the Armed Forces an integral part of many park district events.

Claes married Dorothy O'Brien in 1948, and they raised six children: Jacalyn, Robert, Thomas, Nancy, Richard and Kevin. Claes is survived by Jean, his wife and partner of more than 40 years, his children, 12 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and his sister, Catherine.

After the war, Claes was a postal worker and a parks and recreation worker in Vineland, New Jersey. He worked in similar positions in Elgin and Pekin before the family settled in Elk Grove Village.

His daughter Nancy Barrett recalled the family's time in Great Falls, Montana, when Claes briefly worked as a USO manager. While the job didn't suit him, Claes took advantage of the opportunity to take his family to Yellowstone, Glacier National Park and the Grand Tetons.

Everywhere he went, Claes found inspiration for future projects at the award-winning Elk Grove Park District.

"He built that park district from the ground up," Barrett said. "He was a workaholic but he had a vision and he always had the people to help him implement his vision."

If anyone can attest to Claes' creativity, it's Sharon Anderson. She was the park district's director of recreational facilities from 1977 to 1995 and was at Claes' side as his vision came to life.

In addition to his notable creations, Anderson remembers other unique twists he brought, like a NASA space capsule that stood in a school playground. It was reminiscent of when Claes worked in New Jersey and paraded a Navy jet through the streets of Vineland until it found a resting spot as a piece of playground equipment.

"He would never be critical of the staff for trying creative things," Anderson said. "Even if we failed, he wanted us to stay creative and learn from those mistakes and turn them into something fun and exciting for our community."

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, no funeral service is planned for the near future. Barrett, however, said the family hopes to have an event in his honor at the Jack A. Claes Pavilion for what would have been his 97th birthday in March.

"It's incredible what he did," Barrett said. "Work was his hobby. That's what he loved to do."

Jack Claes Courtesy of Nancy Barrett
Jack Claes, the first Elk Grove Park District director, served in the Marines during World War II. Courtesy of Nancy Barrett
Longtime Elk Grove Park District director Jack Claes is survived by many, including his six children. Courtesy of Nancy Barrett
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