Worcester closes 40-year chapter with the City of West Linn
In 40 years, West Linn Parks & Recreation Director Ken Worcester took West Linn from a three-park town to a city known for the beauty of its green spaces.
When Worcester started working for Parks & Rec in November 1979, Willamette, Hammerle and Sunset were the City's three active parks, though there also was the Cedaroak boat ramp and the undeveloped nature parks Wilderness and Burnside.
Now, the City has over 200 acres of parks and open spaces, thanks, in part, to Worcester, who will retire at the end of October.
Worcester recounted a story from his first few months on the job that exemplifies his head-on approach that enabled him to turn West Linn's parks into what they are today.
"When I first started, we were in a county Little League I think — and they were threatening to kick West Linn out of the league because the fields — and we only had two — were in such bad shape that nobody wanted to come over to play," he said. "That was one of the first things I did, order some dirt and I rebuilt the infield."
Worcester's career is marked by instances like this, where he did whatever work needed to be done to serve the people of West Linn.
The retiring director remarked on how much has changed in his three decades with the City of West Linn — from the expansion of parks to the growth of the city, from City operations to recreational trends, even acceptable standards for athletic field maintenance.
He said he quickly learned that nothing stays the same.
"Something new pops up every day," he said. "You have to learn to keep your eyes and ears open but you have to keep your mind open, too."
As the community grew and the demand for different recreation resources evolved, Worcester and the parks department had to adapt as well.
"We had to be flexible enough to keep up with everything, or in our case we wanted to be ahead a little bit," he said. "When we built the skate park in West Linn, it was really one of the first in the metro area that was good."
"He (Worcester) was never afraid to be the first to do something," Assistant Parks and Recreation Director Ken Warner said.
Worcester said that when the City first began talks of opening a skate park there was a lot of worry from people thinking, "Oh gosh, we can't have those kind of kids here."
"It was great because right when we opened it there were a couple kids that were just really good, incredibly talented skaters and they weren't threatened by the park at all," Worcester recalled. "There's some challenging features in there and they just tore it up."
Not every day of his career had such shining moments where he got to see kids enjoy a park he had just completed. But those moments far outweigh the less pleasant aspects of his job, he said.
Attending long and strenuous city council meetings and dealing with difficult citizens "occupies a lot of your time, but it's not important compared to what's actually getting done and seeing kids go out and start playing in a park that you've just finished. That's what makes it all worth it," he said.
Throughout his time with the City, which has included stints as interim Public Works Director and interim City Manager, Worcester has had maybe more than his fair share of disagreements with city councilors or citizens that turned sour.
"It's never fun when you're under personal attack, but sometimes you can just consider the source and go 'Oh, that person needs help,'" Worcester said. "(But) I've loved every minute of it (working at the City). The downsides have just been more annoyances."
City Manager Eileen Stein said Worcester has taken on these challenges with poise.
"He is very easygoing and has been under the microscope for many years by people in the community and has endured a lot of criticism and has done so very gracefully, and has kept the work of the City moving forward," Stein said of Worcester.
Worcester has survived for so long working in a City known for its dysfunction by working for the people, rather than getting caught up in the politics of City business, he said.
"A lot of people have said, 'How have you been able to last this long?' and I've told even councilors before, 'You guys kind of come and go. City managers come and go. The only consistency here are the people that live in town," Worcester said.
Occasionally, Worcester found it was impossible to please everyone when two sides saw the same issue so differently. In these instances, Worcester said he had to keep in mind that though he may be dealing with a handful of people in that moment, he also serves the other 25,800 people in the City — a mindset he says others could benefit from.
"Certain boards and councils only listen to the people that are there screaming and forget everybody else and that's been the one thing that we've always tried to keep in mind," he said.
In reality, most people don't have time to attend city council meetings, or they simply don't want to, Worcester said.
"Who in their right mind would want to go dive into the middle of that stuff? They're brutal," he said regarding overly-long City meetings
One of the most notable accomplishments of Worcester's career is the Adult Community Center, he said, which took a long time to come to fruition. There were a few community groups that met in church basements and were looking for a more permanent place to meet who helped lead the charge for the ACC. Today the ACC's programming accommodates about 16,000 adults and senior citizens.
Though after Oct. 31 Worcester will no longer be paid by the City of West Linn, he won't disappear from the City or its parks entirely. In his retirement, Worcester plans to golf, fish, work on the drift boat in his garage and also serve as an active volunteer and citizen.
He said he plans to show up at council meetings occasionally to make sure the council and public hear the whole truth, not just testimony from the most vocal citizens.
As a private citizen, Worcester said he will be able to voice his opinion a little more than as a staff member.
"You have to sit there and listen to someone lie, either about you personally or about the project. And as staff, you're not allowed to take people on," he said. "I feel like I might be able to have a little bit more impact from the outside as opposed to the inside."
Worcester is proud of the influence he's had on the city throughout his career. Now he's ready to contribute in a different way.
"It's weird to look back and see that I have my fingerprints everywhere," he said. "To have that kind of an impact on the landscape of a whole city, albeit a small one, is nice."
Stein said that Warner will take over as interim parks director while she and Deputy City Manager John Williams assess the parks department's needs and how they align with the City budget.
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