A map showing the district's boundaries in 1952.
History of Willamalane
by Bryan Beban
This September, Willamalane Park and Recreation District will reach a significant milestone in its history: our 75th anniversary. Following its charter on Sept. 29, 1944, the district endured lawsuits challenging its validity, financial concerns and lack of adequate facilities. Many thought this grand idea of a special park district might fail before it got very far.
According to the Dec. 11, 1955 edition of The Eugene Register-Guard, the vote to incorporate the district in September of 1944 was 233-99 in favor, but it wasn’t until 1945 that any type of program was started and initial tax money received. Once it began, however, growth occurred at an astonishing rate. Following the passage of the first budget — $25,000 — by the board of directors in 1945, total patron usage for district offerings leapt to 47,000 by 1947. Just eight years later, in 1955, more than 200,000 people utilized Willamalane programs and facilities including the Memorial Building and the popular Willamalane Pool. Those facilities saw numbers exceeding 120,000 and 56,000 respectively.
The district has continued to grow, and in 2017 Willamalane welcomed more than 1.8 million visits to its facilities. Bob Keefer Center saw in excess of 300,000 visitors alone, while Willamalane’s two aquatic facilities saw more than 150,000 guests last year.
The district is a pioneer in its field, being the first active park district formed in the state of Oregon. Locally, the successful launch of Willamalane inspired the formation of the River Road Park and Recreation District in Eugene as well as Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District in Beaverton, which were both founded in 1955. Later, Bend Park and Recreation District was created using the Willamalane model in 1974 after being operated by the city of Bend since 1949.
Below: Judge William Fort
The idea of Willamalane began when William Fort, then a Circuit Court judge and acting Lane County district attorney, came across a state law passed in 1941 that provided for the formation of a park district. Juvenile problems were pressing at the time, and he felt that more opportunities for recreation would help solve those problems. Together with Lane County Sheriff C.E. Crowe and former Springfield Public Schools Superintendent E.H. Silke, Fort formed a blueprint for the district. Willamalane’s first superintendent, Walter F. Hansen of Palo Alto, Calif. was hired in December 1945. He would serve until July 1, 1947 when Irene Squires was named Willamalane’s second superintendent. Squires was replaced by Clayton Anderson in July 1952. The first programming began during the summer of 1945 using funds from the community chest.
For his efforts, Fort was dubbed “Father of Willamalane Park and Recreation District” and received national recognition in 1956 with a citation from the National Recreation Association. He was awarded the Outstanding Citizen Award by the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce in 1963 and Eugene First Citizen in 1964. The district’s park across from Thurston High School bears his name as a testament to his role in the creation of Willamalane and the success it has enjoyed for the past 75 years.
For all of the early triumphs of the district, there were numerous challenges which had to be overcome. In September 1948, voters passed, by a more than 2-to-1 margin, a $285,000 bond issue to build a park adjacent to Springfield High School complete with a swimming pool, wading pool, dressing rooms, showers and other park facilities. However, the bond issue was turned down on technical grounds by John Shuler, a Portland-based bonding attorney. Because of the ruling, bonding companies wouldn’t purchase district bonds. Another effect of this ruling was that the district’s 1949 budget was frozen because banks wouldn’t accept short term warrants. Since tax money wouldn’t come until later that year, the district found itself in a major financial crisis. The ruling also questioned whether the formation of Willamalane Park and Recreation District was legal, and the district board of directors called for a test court case.
After Lane County Circuit Court ruled in August 1949 that the district was legally constituted and authorized to do business, the test case was carried to the Oregon Supreme Court to settle the issue. On June 20, 1950, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling. Less than two months later, the long approved $285,000 worth of bonds were sold and pool construction started. On Memorial Day, 1951, the Memorial Building was dedicated after it was acquired from the Veterans Memorial Association the previous July. The building stands as a monument to community effort as well as an everlasting memorial to those who gave their lives in the service of their country in World War II and the Korean conflict. One month later, on Independence Day, Willamalane Pool opened with a dedication ceremony. Appropriately, Judge Fort gave the signal as 500 youngsters jumped into the pool for the first time.
The remainder of the decade and into the 1960s saw continued expansion with the acquisition of Robin Park (1956); Island Park (1957); Game Bird Park, Kelly Butte Park and Meadow Park (1958); Menlo Park and Willamette Heights Park (1960) and Royal Delle Park, Douglas Gardens Park, Page School Park, North 35th Street Park and Guy Lee Park (1961). Continued growth in the 1960s saw six additional parks acquired.
In 1960, Robert Artz was hired as the fourth superintendent. That year also brought Willamalane some statewide accolades as the district was honored with the Distinguished Award in Recreation, which recognized Willamalane as having an outstanding park system in Oregon. That award would begin a longstanding tradition of distinction. The district has earned numerous top awards from national associations and agencies for its park system and programs including the prestigious National Gold Medal for Excellence in the Field of Park and Recreation Management in 1986 and 2016.
Willamalane Pool received its long awaited roof in 1963 allowing the district to offer year-round aquatics programming for the first time. This project led to an Award of Merit for Leadership from American City & County Magazine in 1964.
Artz left his post in 1967 and was replaced by Robert Haworth, who would hold the top position with the district for just two years, making way for River Road Park and Recreation District chief Gary Walker in 1969. Walker would be Willamalane’s superintendent until 1982.
Major capital improvement projects took place in the decades to come, including the construction of Willamalane Adult Activity Center in 1979, the addition of Splash! at Lively Park in 1989, the 32nd Street Sports Park (now Les Schwab Sports Park) in 2004, Willamalane Community Center (now part of Bob Keefer Center) in 2006 and the acquisition of the Regional Sports Center (now Bob Keefer Center) and management and operation of Camp Putt, both in 2010.
Overseeing the aforementioned projects were two superintendents that brought Willamalane into the 21st Century. Daniel Plaza took over for Walker in 1982 and held the post for 18 years, making him Willamalane’s longest-tenured district lead. He was succeeded by Bob Keefer in 2000.
Keefer was monumental in the accelerated growth of the district in the new millennium. Under his guidance, Willamalane opened a new skate park at Willamalane Park, which was made possible by donations from the Tony Hawk Foundation. The skate park was christened by Hawk himself in 2003. Keefer led the construction of the Willamalane Community Center and the acquisition of the Regional Sports Center. The combined 97,000 square-foot facility was renamed the Bob Keefer Center in his honor upon his retirement in 2016. He also led the successful charge for a $20 million bond measure passed in 2012 to expand parks and trails and preserve natural area. He received the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce First Citizen award in 2012, the same honor that Judge Fort was bestowed in 1963. Keefer also received the Spirit of Springfield award in 2016, among others. Keefer was superintendent for 16 years and was followed by Vincent Martorello.
Current Willamalane superintendent Michael Wargo took the post in 2018 and is tasked with leading the district towards its next 75 years. “I am proud to act as superintendent for Willamalane,” said Wargo. “I have such high regard for our staff, patrons and volunteers, and I am happy to step up at this time to support our organization moving forward.”
Created from a need for Springfield area parents to have supervised playgrounds for their children, Willamalane is now a bustling park district that serves more than 1.8 million people annually. With 46 parks, five major facilities and more than 2,000 acres of parks and natural areas, Willamalane is poised for future growth while serving the residents of Springfield at an award-winning level.