Retiring Farms parks and recreation director re-energized park system

By: K. Michelle Moran, | Grosse Pointe Times | Published June 14, 2017

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Had the employment marketplace been a little different, Richard “Dick” Huhn might have been a teacher.

The beloved longtime Grosse Pointe Farms parks and recreation director — who just celebrated his 31st anniversary in that post May 13, and who will retire as of June 30 — admits that his career came about more by chance than by choice.

“Education was the first thing I started thinking about (in college), but there were no teaching jobs at that time,” said Huhn, 65, who ended up getting a Bachelor of Arts degree from Michigan State University in municipal parks and recreation.

 Grosse Pointe Farms Parks and Recreation Director Richard “Dick” Huhn — pictured on the balcony of the award-winning Pier Park community building, overlooking the harbor — oversaw improvements like these during his 31-year career in the city.

Grosse Pointe Farms Parks and Recreation Director Richard “Dick” Huhn — pictured on the balcony of the award-winning Pier Park community building, overlooking the harbor — oversaw improvements like these during his 31-year career in the city.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

Grosse Pointe Farms officials and residents are glad Huhn chose the path he did. During his three decades with the city, he oversaw major changes at Pier Park — including the construction of a community recreation building, a new harbor, a refrigerated ice rink and platform tennis courts — along with the creation of a dog park and popular programs such as Winterfest on the Hill and the Grosse Pointe Concours d’Elegance.

Mayor James Farquhar, who has known Huhn for most of his tenure and served on the city’s Parks and Harbor Committee before becoming mayor, fought tears as he presented Huhn with a resolution in his honor during a June 5 City Council meeting.

“Look at our park now,” said Farquhar, pointing out that it didn’t even have irrigation when Huhn took over.

“I enjoyed working with you,” the mayor told Huhn. “We became friends. I’m going to miss you.”

Three facilities undertaken during Huhn’s tenure — the dog park, the splash pad and the community recreation building — were honored by the Michigan Recreation and Park Association. But Huhn refused to take credit for any of it.

“Thank you to you, Jim, and to the council, and past councils,” Huhn said while accepting the resolution. “It’s always been a team effort. It wasn’t just me.”

When Huhn started, there were just swimming and tennis lessons at Pier Park. Now, thanks to the community building and other facilities, the park is widely used year-round and people enjoy everything from exercise classes to wedding receptions there.

Most recently, City Manager Shane Reeside said Huhn has been working with the Grosse Pointe Farms-City Little League on a master plan for development of new and improved baseball diamonds and related facilities at Kerby Field.

“We’ve always tried to … give real good service to the community, and kind of personalize it,” Huhn said from his office at Pier Park. “We tried to make everyone feel like they’re important. When you leave (a place of employment), you always want the place to be better than it was when you started there. A lot of (the improvements) have to do with community support of parks and recreation.”

He might be a suburbanite now — Huhn lives in Clinton Township — but he grew up in a small town.

Huhn was a middle child in a family of 11, with two older brothers, three older sisters, two younger brothers and three younger sisters. He was raised in the rural community of Pewamo-Westphalia, which is northwest of Lansing, and he recalls getting up in the wee hours of the morning before school to do chores on the family farm.

“I was a country boy,” Huhn said.

The summer after graduating from college, Huhn said, he was one of three counselors at a camp in Oscoda with children who were academically and socially challenged. He then became a parks and recreation director for Milan, a position he held for three years. After working at a family recreation facility at a hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Huhn briefly tried his hand at real estate before accepting a position with Bloomfield Township that put him in charge of park maintenance, where he spent roughly 2 1/2 years. On May 13, 1986, he became the Farms parks and recreation director.

“I have worked with Dick and the park staff as chair of the Parks and Harbor Committee for many years,” City Councilman Peter Waldmeir said by email. “Dick has done an incredible job as parks director. He will be sorely missed. His accomplishments are too many to list, but among others, Dick guided us through restoration of Pier Park after the 1997 storm, he led the modernization and expansion of the harbor in 2007, and he oversaw the development and construction of our award-winning community center and dog park.

“In addition to his accomplishments at (Pier) Park, Dick has spent countless hours organizing community and Little League sports events at Kerby Field and has kicked off the extensive improvements planned for Kerby Field. Dick’s greatest contribution, however, has been his remarkable people skills. Dick has been the face of the community on a day-in and day-out basis throughout the year. Everyone knows his name and he knows theirs.  He is thoughtful, kind and enthusiastic. We will miss his smile as much as we will miss his leadership.  We wish Dick only the very best and thank him for his years of dedicated service to each and every resident. Thank you, Dick.”

Reeside echoed that sentiment.

“He really did a good job in managing the park facilities,” Reeside said. “In addition to that, he’s always been very personable. He’s always displayed a positive attitude, which was ideal in someone to lead a parks and recreation department.”

Huhn first “retired” from the Farms on May 25, 2012, but he remained in the same position, although he worked less during the slower periods at the parks.

“I technically retired on a Friday, but I was back here on a Sunday doing essentially the same thing,” he said.

This time, he’s retiring for real, saying that he and his wife would like to do more traveling — including a visit to Greece, where she was born.

“I really haven’t had a summer vacation (in about) 30 years,” Huhn said, noting that summer has always been the busiest time at work for him.

On July 28, he and his wife, Angie Lefaso-Huhn, will celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary. Huhn said his wife retired from a career with the U.S. Department of Defense about four or five years ago. For a number of years, the couple saw each other mostly on weekends because she was stationed in other places, including Florida, Ohio, Kentucky and Washington, D.C.

He and his wife don’t have children, but Huhn said he’d like to spend more time with his extended family, many of whom still live in the Lansing area. He enjoys running, going to the gym and golfing as well, so those are all activities Huhn said he can see himself doing more of once he isn’t working. And he isn’t ruling out taking another job in the future.

“If I do work (again), I don’t want to be the boss,” Huhn said.

He might not miss the demands of the job, but Huhn said he will miss the people with whom he’s come in contact over the years — his parks and recreation co-workers, staff and administrators at City Hall, and “a lot of the residents,” many of whom have become his friends.

“We’ve had a lot of fun over the years,” Huhn said.

He might be an administrator, but Huhn has been known to take a hands-on approach to the job.

“Dick has never been shy of getting his hands dirty and joining in on projects,” Reeside said. “Most recently, he was up on the gazebo of the dog park, installing a copper roof.”

That kind of can-do spirit, however, can spell trouble. Recreation and Aquatic Coordinator Michele Eickhorst and Assistant Recreation and Aquatic Coordinator Kara Hardenbrook — who have known Huhn, respectively, for 25 years and 15 years — said that their boss often injures himself when tools are involved.

Both women have known Huhn since they started working at the park as teens, and Eickhorst said Huhn is “definitely a father figure” to them.

“His door’s always open, no matter what,” she said. “You can go to him for every kind of advice. He’s always concerned about everyone.”

Hardenbrook agreed.

“For me, he’s seen our worst days, he’s seen our best days,” she said. “He’s been through our high school graduations.”

For both, a favorite memory was when Huhn volunteered for the dunk tank during a Pier Park activity several years ago. They said he entered the tank wearing a life jacket, swim cap, swim trunks and inner tube.

“Every day is a funny story,” Hardenbrook said. “He makes every day fun.”

Both women laughingly say that Huhn isn’t the most tech-savvy person in the city.

“He still uses a typewriter,” Hardenbrook said. “Even if it’s a PDF form, he’ll still print it out and use a typewriter (to fill in the blanks).”

What’s clear is that Huhn has endeared himself to Eickhorst and Hardenbrook, as well as so many other city staffers and residents.

“We’ve had some pretty good staff over the years,” Huhn said. “It’s really more of a family feeling than co-workers.”

It’s no wonder, then, that colleagues like Reeside say they’re going to miss Huhn “a lot.”

His original goal was to stay in the Farms for at least 10 years, but Huhn “kept on going” long after that milestone.

“It’s been a privilege,” Huhn told officials during the June 5 meeting. “Sometimes I’ve got to look in the mirror and say, ‘How did you fall into this?’”