Former Naperville parks director remembered as 'iconic figure'
Glen Ekey lived what he preached.
As former executive director of the Naperville Park District, Ekey's work spilled into his personal life, loved ones say, blending his passion for recreation with his love of bringing people together until his death Friday at age 79.
He was the brains behind community initiatives -- including the popular Ribfest -- and the driving force behind professional partnerships that stand strong to this day. And he carried his vision and enthusiasm for Naperville into retirement, offering suggestions and acting as a trusted mentor to leaders who followed in his footsteps, current Executive Director Ray McGury said.
"He was an iconic figure in the park district world because of who he was as a person," McGury said. "He will go down, in my opinion, as the best executive director this park district has ever had."
The park district flourished under Ekey's leadership from 1981 to 1996, resulting in the creation of the Naperbrook Golf Course and the development of relationships among local schools, the YMCA and other Naperville entities. As the city grew, he had the foresight to preserve land, rather than sell it, setting the tone for future plans and priorities adopted by the community, McGury said.
"He wasn't anti-development, but he was pro-outdoors, pro-recreation," he said. "His vision certainly is why we're in the great position we're in today as a park district and as a city."
The park district honored Ekey in 2013 by naming the driving range at Naperbrook Golf Course after him.
Loved ones grew accustomed to watching Ekey's ideas come to fruition, with Ribfest serving as a prime example. The concept stemmed from a conversation with a family friend in Michigan and was brought to life by the newly formed Exchange Club of Naperville soon after, his son, David Ekey, said. It quickly evolved into a major fundraiser and one of the suburbs' largest festivals.
Despite his busy schedule, Ekey never shied away from sharing his passion with his friends and family, his kids said, pointing to adventures involving hiking, boating, horseback riding, skiing and more. He embraced his role as the coordinator of social gatherings and golf outings and ski trips and family reunions, which he hosted with his wife of 56 years, Marilyn, at their Michigan cottage.
"It's been pretty amazing that he brought so many people together," his daughter, Trish Mueller, said, recalling his generous spirit, quirky sense of humor and love of junk food that delighted all the children in his presence. "He was always there, attending everything and supporting us 100%."
His devotion to loved ones and the community never wavered, his children said, even through a nearly two-year battle with esophageal cancer 18 years ago. After he was diagnosed this past July with pancreatic cancer, Ekey spent his final months with friends and family, taking trips to the pumpkin patch and the Naperville Riverwalk and a final weekend in Michigan.
"He really instilled in us the importance of playing and balancing life," said Tom Miers, close friend and president of Naperville Bank & Trust. "He was just all around a genuine, great family guy who meant so much to so many people.
"Naperville is better off because of Glen Ekey."
A visitation will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Friedrich-Jones Funeral Home, 44 S. Mill St., Naperville. Face masks are required, and no more than 25 guests will be allowed in the building at a time.