I first met Joe Kays about 10 years ago when I joined the Claremore Optimist Club. (Ten years?! Can I really be that old?) I knew that Joe drove a green City of Claremore truck and that he did something with the Parks & Rec department. But it wasn’t until I got a chance to sit down and talk about something other than what we, as Optimists, can do for the youth of Claremore, that I really got to understand Joe’s job as the Director of Parks and Recreation.
Joe’s a local boy, born in Claremore and schooled in Oologah. He attended college at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Health, Physical Education and Recreation, as well as minors in science and safety. He began working for the City of Claremore as part-time summer help in 1986, spending his days picking up trash, mowing and weed-eating. He did such a good job that he was hired for a full-time position in the maintenance division. A short time later, he was named manager of the rec center, a position he held from 1987 until 1991. You may think, “The rec center? That hasn’t been around that long.” Think back to the days at the “old armory.” THAT was Claremore’s rec center: carpeted gym, creepy restrooms and a sweat-drenched, stinky weight room. I spent many hours as a kid in that old gym, attempting to mold myself into a star basketball player. (That didn’t happen, by the way, in case you’re wondering.)
In 1991, Joe was promoted to Assistant Director of Parks & Rec. The Claremore Super Rec Center (what we think of NOW as the “rec center”) was built in 1999, and the Claremore Community Center, where Joe offices, was erected in 2004. Sadly, the “old armory” was torn down the following year. I mean, I guess it’s not really sad when you think of the facilities that replaced it. But, you know, memories and all.
So Joe is now the Director of Parks & Rec. When you think of parks in Claremore, you think of the obvious ones: Will Rogers Park where the splash pad lives, the Lion’s Kiddie Park with the merry-go-round, and maybe baseball fields, right? I learned that there is so much more to Joe’s position than that.
For example, Joe starts most days by meeting with the park department maintenance foreman, assigning tasks for the day to the crew members. After that, he’ll head to the cemetery to meet with the team over there. (The cemetery. Who would’ve thought?) Every other week, Joe meets with the department heads, which includes folks from the Expo, rec center, library, cemetery and senior citizens center. (Again, who knew?)
The Parks & Rec team is responsible for mowing most all of the city grass, like the medians that run all the way through town. They are in charge of planting at all the parks and the gazebo. All of the athletic complexes are maintained, including Pecan, Walnut, and Powers Parks, and the soccer fields. The playground parks must be kept up as well, like Loshbaugh Park and Redbud Park. (I had no idea where those were located. If you ask me, I might tell you.)
The Lake Park is another undertaking by the Parks & Rec Department, although they have a fine team in place that maintains the lake on a daily basis. Speaking of the Lake Park, you know how Claremore has a spectacular celebration on the Fourth of July? Guess who’s in charge of that? That’s right: Joe and his people. Planning for the 4th event begins in February or March, when Joe orders the fireworks from Western Enterprises. Several planning meetings take place with the lake rangers and the 4th of July fireworks committee (Dell Davis, Lisa Rogers, Jeff Barlow, and Jason Crandall) to work out logistics for the event, including safety measures.
In the early morning hours before the fireworks show, the lake is open for the kids fishing derby, which draws an average of 400 participants each year. Children ages 4 – 12 are invited to enter for FREE, plus they receive a rod, reel and tackle pack, courtesy of kind sponsors like GRDA and Coca-Cola, as well as many other local sponsors.
Another event that is hosted by Parks & Rec is the free movie. It has been in held in various locations through the years, but Mother Nature tended not to cooperate. After wind, storms and lightning were all factors at one point or another, Parks & Rec teamed up with RSU and now hosts an indoor movie at the rec center in conjunction with the Halloween Kiddie Karnival.
This time of year, the crew handles putting up all of the lovely Christmas decorations downtown, on Route 66 and in Gazebo Park. They’re on a time crunch, as they always have everything in place before Dickens on the Boulevard in late November.
Parks & Rec has been a major player in several large projects in town during recent years. About a year ago, they handled the installation of new lights at the Legion Field. The light poles were generously donated by Pelco Structural. The baseball boosters paid for the lights, and Parks & Rec paid for the install. By the way, those poles are buried in the ground 12 feet deep. Just think about that.
Another successful project was the splash pad at the Will Rogers Park, which opened in August 2013. It’s been a poppin’ spot since it opened, and the upgrades to the park have only helped in drawing the crowds to play. Claremore’s splash pad is open the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend until the first Sunday in October, which is longer than other splash pads in the area. Daily hours are 10a – 7p.
A team of volunteers led by Crystal Campbell and Renetta Harrison were instrumental in getting a new playground structure installed at the Will Rogers Park. Additionally, Joe just received word that a 60/40 matching grant (funds matched by the City of Claremore) will pay for a new walking trail to be installed around the park’s perimeter. Next up on the agenda is a new picnic shelter and restrooms. While you’re visiting the park, be sure to check out the new teaching gardens that are being installed by the Rogers County Master Gardeners Association.
Every six years, the good folks of Claremore vote on a temporary sales tax increase. (It’s one penny.) The proceeds are split evenly between Parks & Rec, Claremore Police and Claremore Fire, with 20% going to each entity. The remainder goes into a capital improvement fund. With the exception of salaries, Parks & Rec is entirely funded by the sales tax improvement. The vote has passed every year since 1973, so let’s keep it up, Claremore!
The Community Center is another area that falls under Joe’s guidance. Several activities are held on a regular basis at the Community Center, like the after-school BLAST program, a bridge club and line dancing lessons. The large room is available for private rental at a nominal fee for events like birthday parties and showers.
During the summer months, a host of summer day camps for kids are held, under the direction of Youth Program Coordinator Ron Paris. Several free sports clinics are also held at the Community Center.
Of his position with Parks & Rec, Joe said, “We couldn’t have what we do without the volunteers and the support of the citizens of Claremore and the City Council. We are so fortunate to have the amenities that we have, like the rec center, lake park and splash pad.”
Joe lives in Claremore with his wife, Becky. They have two daughters, Heather and Courtney, and are longtime members of Redeemer Lutheran Church.
-MCM Staffer Ashley,
who thinks you should think about joining the Optimist Club.
You get to eat at Eggbert’s every week with Joe and me!