Graham A. Skea (1928-2018) received the Pugsley Medal in 1982. He grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, and went to high school there. He played multiple sports in high school, but after graduation in 1945, he attended Upsala College on a basketball scholarship where he was a 5'8" point guard. When he left high school, he enlisted in the Navy which authorized him to attend college at Upsala for two years, before posting him to Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, where he trained as a naval aviator. After a year there he returned to Upsala, graduating in 1951. While in college he started work with the East Orange, New Jersey, park system in 1949 as a part-time playground director. He became assistant superintendent in 1952 and the city's recreation superintendent in 1956, remaining in that position until he resigned in 1967.
During his time at East Orange, Skea had two role models and mentors who were influential in his development in these formative years. They were Francis H. Haire, who was director of the parks and recreation department, and one of her board members, John W Faust, who was the National Recreation Association's regional director. During his time at East Orange, Skea was elected president of the New Jersey Recreation Association in 1957, and had the experience of organizing the host committee for the National Recreation Association's national conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
In 1967, a consultant working for East Orange was also developing a master plan for Orange County, New York, and he brought to Skea's attention a new position being established by the county. Skea was ready to take on a bigger challenge so he applied, was successful, and resigned from East Orange in 1967. His challenge was to create a county parks system from scratch. At the time of his resignation, the mayor said: "It is a tremendous loss to the city. He has been a great asset, and we did everything we could to convince him to stay. His many accomplishments in our parks and playgrounds will carry on after him."
The autonomous Orange County Park Commission was created in 1963 by the county's Board of Supervisors with a budget of $800,000 to start the process of acquiring parks and starting a system. Subsequently in 1970, the commission became an advisory body, and Skea reported directly to the county execulive. When Skea arrived in Orange County to become the second commissioner of parks, recreation, and conservation in 1967, the county park system consisted of one 650-acre park, whose sole amenity was a single picnic grove. He invested his whole career in this system, and when he retired in 2005, it had grown to 10 parks and additional watershed lands totaling 5,100 acres, four historic sites, two golf courses, horse show areas, 11 miles of walking, skating and biking trails, and more. With a $4-million budget, Skea led a staff of 45 full-time and 70 seasonal employees. In recognition of his leadership, the ski lodge in the Thomas Bell Memorial Park was named after him.
In the early 1960s, many Orange County leaders and residents could not imagine a need for preserving open space for recreation since 80% of the county was farmland and open space. "Why do we need parks, the whole county is a park?" was a common sentiment. Many saw the county as one big open space for hiking and farmlands with beautiful scenery. With Orange County's subsequent population growth, however, it became evident that those community leaders who launched and developed the park system were prescient and visionary.
Building the park system was not easy because the county allocated relatively few dollars to do it. Skea made a strenuous effort to ensure a good rapport with the state office of parks and recreation, so when federal and state grants became available, he was well-positioned to secure them. A long-time county commissioner observed: "He enjoyed seeing a challenge, and this was not exactly easy for him. He had no support, no direction, but he became a pioneer in convincing people of the need for more park lands. He is a man's man, and he charmed people into working with him."
His affability and geniality have been important assets in attaining his professional goals. The majority leader in the state legislature observed, "People are his strength," while an elected official who was sometimes an adversary of some of Skea's policies recognized that despite their differences, "Graham is always a gentleman."
Skea relied on extensive use of grants and partnerships to bring the system to fruition. Thus, for example, federal grants paid for more than 50% of the county's parkland acquisition and development costs, while the county's contribution was less than half of the federal amount. An elected official with whom he interacted reported, "The man is a magician when it comes to getting grant money," while one of his former commissioners said, "I think he became a grant writer before we ever knew the term."
He has been a strong advocate for public-private partnerships. He had park board members who provided access to prospective partners in the form of nonprofit organizations or affluent individuals. For example, the parks department and Citizens Foundation worked together with the Neversink Valley Area Museum to acquire the D&H Canal Park; with Orange Pathways to acquire the Orange County Heritage Trail; and with committed citizens and the Ottawa Foundation to develop the Orange County Arboretum. Among the donations Skea nurtured were the Hill-Hold Museum with 189 acres of land, and the Charles B. Hill Brick House with its rustic 177 acres of open space. Both homes were listed on the National Register of Historic Places and offer insights into area life in the 1870s.
Perhaps Skea's proudest moment at Orange County was when the 9/11 memorial, which was funded by private contributions, was dedicated in the new Orange County Arboretum. This memorial pays tribute to the 44 Orange County residents who were killed at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He commented, "It was gratifying that I had an opportunity to try and comfort the surviving families that came here to see this tribute to their loved ones."
Skea has always been quick to deflect plaudits directed at him to his staff, members of his parks commissions, and others in the county who supported his efforts to develop park systems. A long-term member of the parks commission said, "Never once do I remember him using the personal pronoun 'I'.It was always 'us, we, they'." Despite his protestations to the contrary, the evolution of the parks system in such a difficult environment is primarily a function of Skea's focus, diligence and dedication. His diligence was acknowledged with admiration by a sometimes adversary who stated, "When Graham retires, we'll need 10 people to replace him." His focus has always been work and family, and as a press profile of him reported, "At some point, even those are one and the same because he thinks of his staff as part of his family. He's well respected by his employees, but more than that, he's loved."
Skea was active in leadership roles in many professional organizations including: president of the New Jersey Recreation Association; vice president of the New York State Society; president of the American Recreation Society; on the National Recreation and Park Association Board of Trustees; and chair of NRPA Mid-Atlantic Regional Council.
A publication of the Orange County Citizens Foundation observed; "Graham Skea has dedicated his life to bettering the lives of Orange County residents by providing exceptional areas for all and by sharing his knowledge with others," to which Skea's response was, "The thing that makes it all worthwhile is seeing people enjoying our parkland. It's so gratifying."
At a dinner honoring Skea in 2004, the following remarks captured the essence of his personality:
He loves life and people, and his energetic walk has an obvious bounce. He speaks proudly of his Scottish heritage. He talks fast, is persistent, extremely persuasive, and invariably there is a twinkle in his eye. He has the ability to make everyone with whom he comes into contact feel special. His sense of humor and support for his staff has won their respect and their loyalty. He has a sympathetic ear and a soft heart. So when the pressure is on to meet a deadline, his staff will do whatever is necessary to get the job done. He is extremely modest, deflecting compliments to praise his visionary Board of Supervisors, County Executive, and his staff. He is a true public servant.