Robert F. Toalson (1932-2015) received the Pugsley Medal in 1987. He was born and raised in Dodge City, Kansas. He attended the University of Kansas on an ROTC scholarship, graduating with a degree in political science in 1954 and was commissioned in the United States Marine Corps. He served as a platoon leader and an executive officer for a Marine Detachment Afloat from 1954-57. The Marines' motto "look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp" was a mantra he frequently espoused in his professional life.
Toalson received a master's degree in park and recreation administration from Indiana University in 1958, and became a National Recreation Association intern with the Philadelphia Recreation Commission under its legendary director, Robert Crawford. He was appointed assistant director and then director of the Oak Park, Illinois, Recreation Department. While in Oak Park, a bond referendum was passed which provided for three new recreation centers and the remodeling of four others. Toalson initiated the Lighted School House for recreation programs, and the department served as a host agency for the National Recreation Association internship program. Under his administration, the agency won the National Gold Medal for excellence. Toalson was recognized with the Oak Park Outstanding Citizen Award in 1965.
In 1970, Toalson became the general manager of the Champaign Park District in Illinois. He remained in this position until his retirement in 2001. In that 31- year period, Toalson's name was inseparable from that of the Champaign Park District. He oversaw a period of remarkable growth. The land area of the city doubled during that period, and the number of parks doubled to 59. The district's staff increased from 28 to 65 full-time positions and 300 seasonal employees, while the budget increased from $I million to $9 million. He initiated a host of innovative programs and established an array of partnerships to get things done. One example was turning an historic old post office into the Springer Cultural Center. Another was the flower island program in which businesses paid the park district for flower beds on their property and the price paid for a flower bed of the same size on public property. Over 250 flower beds were established.
He strongly supported the NRPA internship program in Champaign. Indeed, in addition tu his own professional success,Toalson was known for his nurturing and mentoring of young professionals who later rose to senior positions in other agencies. One of the first adventure playground programs in the US was launched by the Champaign Park District, and it was among the first agencies to hire full-time staff to coordinate and stimulate volunteerism in park systems. Toalson was honored as Champaign's outstanding citizen by the Chamber of Commerce in 1999. The Champaign city manager with whom Toalson worked closely stated:
This is a government with few resources really, but Bob has shown tremendous flexibility and creativity in going out of his way to work with different individuals and businesses and governmental entities. The bigger districts and higher salaries were always there for him. But it reflects on his personality and commitment as a community builder that he decided to stay here. we're all better for it.
Unusually among practicing professionals, Toalson also periodically published articles in Parks and Recreation, and Illinois Parks and Recreation. Most notably, he co-authored, with Lynn Rodney, the second edition of a widely-used textbook, Administration of Recreation, Parks, and Leisure Services.
The Champaign Park District won the prestigious Gold Medal award recognizing it as the outstanding system of its size in the country in 1979, 1990, and 1998. With his earlier leadership at Oak Park District when it won this award, in the language of one of his passions, college basketball -- this made him the John Wooden of parks and recreation since no other individual had ever led an agency to win this award on four occasions.
Toalson was president of four organizations: The American Park and Recreation Association; the National Recreation and Park Association; the Illinois Park and Recreation Association; and the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration. He was one of the visionaries who founded this latter academy in 1980. As well as being one of its early presidents, he was the organization's executive secretary/treasurer from 1985 to 1997. This provided the thread of consistency and stability behind the scenes which were critical in turning the Academy into the prestigious organization that it has become. Toalson believed that government officials paid by tax funds had a moral obligation to give back to the community, and he expected his staff to follow his leadership in doing this. His voluntary civic leadership roles included: campaign chair for the United Way and president of the United Way Board, the Kiwanis Club, the Illini Rebounders, and the Champaign County Forest Preserve Board of Commissioners. When people describe Toalson, the words character, honesty, ethical, integrity, and grace are invariably prominent. He was a quiet man who stood behind his word and got the job done. If he said "I will do it," you could consider it done, and done professionally. The example set by his actions, together with the gentle smile and words of encouragement, brought out the best in all those around him. He was consummately positive toward everything. He rarely said, "no" or "probably not." The closest he came to a negative response was, "That is a possibility."
People admired Toalson not only for his many accomplishments, but also for the example he set. He drove the worst car in the park district fleet. At the end of special events, he was there pulling up tent stakes, picking up garbage, cleaning up the mess. As director, he did not have to do these things, but he viewed himself not only as director, but also as the park district's most dependable volunteer. One of the reporters who regularly covered the park district said, "There are far too many people in public service who are neither public-oriented nor servants. You have set a great example of how it should be done."
Bloomer. J. Philip. (200l. January 19). Retiring but still on the Job. News-Gazette.
Bill McKinney and Rebecca Kinsland contributed to the development of this profile.