(Editor’s note: This feature story by Idaho Mountain Express sports editor Jeff Cordes was published in the Aug. 20, 2003 edition of this newspaper).
Ketchum’s Atkinson Park won’t be the same without Terry Tracy, the city’s Parks and Recreation Director for 25 years who is retiring Aug. 31.
She is one of the original “Park Rats,” a playful term referring to people who spent much of their leisure time at the park during the late 1970s and early 1980s—back when Ketchum was on the verge of a boom and nearly 50 men’s and women’s softball teams used the diamonds each week.
Tracy played there and worked there, setting a high standard because of her commitment to young people and her love of recreation.
The park’s summer youth recreation programs, staffing structure, after-school activities and its modern, five-year-old, 4,100-square-foot park building are all the products of Tracy’s keen vision, built from 41 years in the recreation and education business.
Similar programs for youth operated by the Blaine County Recreation District have been modeled after ones originated in the valley by Tracy.
Her vision for Atkinson Park has been straightforward.
“I’ve always wanted the kids to have as many recreational opportunities as possible,” said Tracy, who took the job only two years after Atkinson Park was created in 1976.
She has many admirers.
“Terry Tracy has been the park,” said Bob Sarchett, who coached Tracy on the outstanding Ore House women’s slow-pitch softball teams of the mid- and late-1970s. “What you see today at the park is here because of her energy.”
“Terry has been a tireless advocate for recreation and kids. She has always kept the park well maintained and has taken a great deal of pride in it. She’ll be missed,” said former Ketchum city administrator Jim Jaquet, who first hired Tracy in August 1978.
Jaquet added, “We never had to give Terry direction. She initiates things. And she’s done more than anyone else in providing recreational programs. Under her leadership, the park has become a very pleasant place for kids and families.”
In retirement, Terry Tracy isn’t going away.
After traveling to visit friends this fall, Tracy, 62, will return to her home in Ketchum and do what she has always done. “I’m very comfortable in Ketchum and I’ll continue to be involved,” she said.
Being involved, for Terry Tracy, means speaking out and ruffling some feathers when it’s necessary. That’s unusual in a city employee, but Tracy has always been a singular person.
Jaquet said, “Terry is certainly outspoken and forceful in her viewpoints.”
That, and her extremely protective attitude toward every blade of grass at the park, in Jaquet’s words, has earned Tracy some detractors.
Her good friend Jan Wygle of Ketchum said, “Terry has no time for people who aren’t straight up and honest and deal with reality.”
But Tracy stands squarely on her accomplishments.
When she took the job in 1978, city council members like Barry Luboviski gave her a mandate to create new programs and expand uses of the park. Mission accomplished.
One of her proudest accomplishments is the continuity of the Atkinson Park staff—and the fact that youngsters who have come through the summer youth program are encouraged to take positions as staff members once they become teenagers and go to college.
“With the continuity of the staff, the kids see familiar faces from year to year and know what the expectations are,” Tracy said. “And we’ve always advocated older kids playing with the younger kids.”
Tracy explained, “We hire 20 teenagers every summer to coach, referee and supervise. And it has worked well. The older kids pass the legacy down. They are role models not just for skills but for attitude and knowledge of the rules of the park and the games.”
She said she doesn’t have many regrets about her quarter century of progress at the park, but Tracy said she does have two great disappointments.
The first is the failure of Ketchum, despite her repeated urgings, to acquire more property for active parks back when land was less expensive.
“I don’t think people understand how much use this park gets,” she said.
Jaquet said, “The problem has always been the cost of land. You have to understand that Atkinson Park serves as the park for all of northern Blaine County.”
Tracy’s second regret is the lack of a community pool in Ketchum. “I know the residents of Ketchum desperately want a pool,” she said.
Despite this, she has been vocal in opposition to the then-Bill Janss Community Center, now-Wood River Community YMCA, which is proposing a pool as part of its estimated $16 million, 95,000-square-foot size.
Her opposition is based on the project’s expense and its glacial movement toward a resolution over the last decade.
“We don’t need to have a pie in the sky. We’re too small a community to do what’s been proposed,” she said.
So, Tracy took some action to make Ketchum city managers think more carefully about their pledge of a $3 million matching grant for the YMCA.
Tracy said, “I’ve felt that Ketchum needed to move forward and that things weren’t happening. So, we (Tracy and full-time staffers Jamie Hjort and Kirk Mason) came up with a proposal and put it into this year’s budget as our capital improvement. I wanted to go on record with it.”
Tracy’s parting shot is a smaller-scale $4.8 million proposal that would include construction of an outdoor leisure pool, a covered building with refrigerated ice for a skating rink, an outdoor miniature golf course and a climbing wall.
The location would be the city’s Park & Ride lot along Warm Springs Road, where the larger-scale Community YMCA is also proposed.
“We felt a leisure pool should be an outdoor pool. People in the summer want to be outdoors. It would take up less space on that lot than the YMCA. And I think residents of Ketchum would support it,” said Tracy.
Jaquet, who retired last year as Ketchum city administrator and will serve as Wagon Days Grand Marshal on Labor Day weekend, sounded more of a cautionary note.
He said, “The city always has to grapple with competing demands, and one of the things you’re always cautious about is municipal swimming pools. You don’t want it to be a burden on the city of Ketchum’s taxpayers.”
You get the sense, listening to Tracy and Jaquet outline their stances, that they’ve been staring each other down from their respective pitching mounds within city government for 25 years.
But Jaquet, a kindred spirit, is an original Park Rat as well. He runs the pitching machine for the kids during the summer at Atkinson Park.
Tracy’s friend Vicky Graves of Ketchum is a Park Rat, too.
A Hall of Fame scorekeeper, she has kept charts and graphs since the heyday of local softball, 1979, when 47 men’s and women’s teams played softball.
On the scorecard entitled Vicky vs. Terry, Vicky has a cushion.
For 100 years, in Vicky’s words, Terry and Vicky have had a standing $5 bet prior to each major league baseball season—Vicky taking the New York Yankees and Terry standing behind her beloved Boston Red Sox. If the Yankees finish ahead of the Red Sox, Vicky wins the $5, and vice versa.
Recently, Vicky deadpanned that she bought her new condo with the $5 bets she has collected from Terry.
You can conclude that Tracy’s continuing love affair with the perpetually contending and perennially failing Red Sox makes her a certified, Grade A dreamer. And you’d be right.
She’s also an idealist, a fighter, a pragmatist, a terrific athlete and a wonderful friend. All those aspects of her character have helped Tracy play at a high level wherever she has gone, and have helped Atkinson Park become what it is.
Paradoxically, she is a Connecticut Yankee, growing up in Bristol near Hartford way before ESPN arrived.
She graduated from Bristol High School in 1958, having enjoyed a wonderful program of sports at the school including varsity sports for girls. Tracy played tennis, was on the swim team and also played forward on the basketball team.
In the school’s strong intramural program, she was the shortstop on the softball team.
She took her cue from her father Joe Tracy, whose passions were opera and baseball. Joe preferred the New York teams, but Terry introduced him to Fenway Park and the Red Sox.
She went to the University of North Carolina where she played varsity tennis, mainly doubles. Her degree in 1962 was in physical education. Tracy loved the curriculum because it was heavy in the sciences.
Her first job was teaching physical education at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
It was a fun college town, she said. For a girls’ school, Vassar had just as many guys around as girls. What Tracy learned in two years at Vassar was she didn’t want to teach PE.
So she went home to Connecticut and spent a year-and-a-half obtaining her masters degree in guidance and counseling from the University of Hartford. Then she made one of her most important decisions.
It was 1965, two years after the death of President John Kennedy. The country was still influenced by Kennedy’s legacy, which included an organization called the Peace Corps that he initiated in 1960 and Congress approved in 1961.
Tracy joined the Peace Corps and spent what she called “the best two years of my life,” from 1965-67 setting up an athletic program for about 1,500 youngsters in and around Merida, Venezuela.
“The day I graduated from Hartford, my parents drove me to Springfield College where I started my training for the Peace Corps,” Tracy said. “I wanted to live and work in a foreign country, but I wanted the security of working for an organization.
“I was very lucky—had a great assignment, wonderful people and tremendous support. It was extremely rewarding. When I finished, dad told me that he thought I had bought my ticket to heaven.”
Instead it was a ticket to Sun Valley, but not right away. She taught at Bristol Central High School for two years, then decided to head west and visit a cousin who had moved from Connecticut to Boise. First, Tracy stopped in Sun Valley.
Tracy said, “It was late August 1969. I moved into the dorms and started working for Sun Valley. It was September, then October. I had to keep calling my cousin in Boise telling her I’d be there soon. Finally I made it on Thanksgiving.” Her jobs at Sun Valley ran the usual gamut, everything from lifeguard to ski instructor to hotel reservations to inventory. In 1971, she began a four-year stint working for Wood River High School in Hailey as a guidance counselor.
Then, Tracy accepted a job as director of counseling and women’s athletics at Lakeside School, a private four-year prep school in Seattle, Wash. She would work winters in Seattle, and return to Sun Valley in the summers to play softball.
As a shortstop with quick hands and a strong arm for the Ore House, Terry Tracy was one of the best defensive softball players in Idaho during the 1970s, coach Bob Sarchett said.
Although she wasn’t the best hitter on the Ketchum-based team, Tracy nevertheless excelled at hitting in the clutch.
They were great years on the diamond. Her teams won a couple of district championships and always played well in the state tournament, once rising as high as second place.
Whether she was playing shortstop or pitcher, Tracy always seemed in the running for Most Valuable Player.
“I always admired Terry’s physical prowess,” said Jan Wygle, who caught for Tracy for five years on the Warm Springs Realty Ripper teams.
Tracy said, “Playing softball was fun. We met a lot of people. Now a lot of those same people are out on the golf circuit and we see them there.”
Her 34 years in Idaho coincide with the implementation of Title IX and the growth of girls’ high school sports in the Gem State.
Indeed, Tracy coached the relatively new Wood River High girls’ basketball team for two years from 1979-81, and she remains the only coach to win a district girls’ basketball championship for the Hailey high school.
She has strong opinions about women’s sports. Tracy said, “In Idaho, on the high school and college levels they went kicking and screaming into women’s sports but they’re probably happy they did.
“Women’s sports are still secondary—they don’t bring in much revenue and they’re so dependent on the so-called major sports. I still see it as a struggle, particularly the inequality of men’s vs. women’s sports primarily in coaching, but we’ve come a long way.”
It wasn’t that the athletes weren’t there, Tracy said, but the opportunities were limited.
She was surprised, from her softball experiences, by the quality of the athletes. Tracy said, “For a state that had few sport programs for women, we had this major softball program all across the state. These were really good athletes and highly competitive—not only softball players, but golfers and volleyball and basketball players.
“That’s when I realized that these athletes were coming from parks and recreation programs, and those programs were the basis of everything.”
In 1978, city adminstrator Jaquet, exasperated by the lack of staying power of the city’s two previous recreation directors Gary Strom and Rick Perry, offered the job to Tracy and requested only that she make a long-term commitment.
Tracy said, “I’ll give you two years.”
Her pay was minimal. She was full time at $850 a month from May 1 to Oct. 15, and part time at $500 a month from November to March. That put her annual pay at about $7,600. She’ll retire Aug. 31 at $58,536.
Her resources were few. The park budget in those days barely broke the $30,000 mark. In contrast, this year’s budget request for parks is $465,688.
“We had nothing. Rick (Perry) was gone. Strom was gone. No one knew anything about the park. There weren’t guidelines or programs. There wasn’t continuity,” said Tracy.
Immediately, she hooked up with Hemingway Elementary School to begin youth programs. “We started soccer that fall, in 1978,” said Tracy. “We started with 18 Hemingway kids. To keep them interested in soccer, we had to promise that the other half of the program would be flag football.”
Although the tennis courts and all three ball diamonds were in, and wooden snow fences had been replaced by chain link when Tracy started her job, equipment was skimpy and often improvised.
Her only helper was maintenance man Steve Cole.
“We had one riding lawnmower and one push mower. I remember Steve and I, and Carol Levine when she came on, we used our own cars to drag the infields. We managed somehow, but we were going all the time, especially with 47 teams and that included two divisions—two!—of women’s softball alone,” she said.
There are no adult men’s or women’s softball leagues these days, only 11 coed teams playing one night a week, so the pressure is less on the eight full-time staffers in the summer. But 25 years ago, it was a relentless succession of game after game, even day games with the women’s league.
Hard work yields its own rewards, though. Tracy and her devoted staff relieved the stress with drinks at the now-departed, fondly remembered River Street Retreat tavern.
Having taken the park job in August 1978, Tracy started to work immediately on improving the park itself and expanding the programs for children.
Two months later, in October 1978, Don and Stan Atkinson donated $1,900 for park landscaping. Tracy and Cole started planting trees—trees that are mature today, providing shade.
In summer programs, youth tennis was a mainstay from the start. So was youth baseball.
Chick Donaldson, one of the softball league’s sluggers and prime movers, coached an All-Star baseball team at the park. One day Tracy asked him, “What happens to the kids who don’t make the All-Star team?” The answer? They didn’t play.
“So we started our Recreation Little League,” said Tracy about her experiment in the democratization of Atkinson Park baseball.
It has been hugely successful. Jaquet said, “The Rec Little League is one of the best things that has happened at the park.”
Tracy said the summer youth program has added golf, basketball, soccer, and arts and crafts as years have passed and tastes have changed.
“We tinkered a little and made adjustments here and there,” she said. “As the kids showed there was a demand for something, we added it.”
Her pursuit of land acquisition was less successful.
“Whistling is the wind,” is Tracy’s description of her 25-year argument for land acquisition for active parks.
At one point she tried to recruit an influential backer in Bob Rosso, a proponent of individual sports who spearheaded the Blaine County Recreation District’s successful drive for the valley’s bike path and cross-country ski trails.
“I tried to get Bob interested in active parks. He would say to me, Terry, this whole valley is a park. And I’d say, Bob, you can’t play soccer on the side of a hill. That doesn’t allow you to play team sports,” said Tracy.
You can imagine how delighted Tracy was when, in 1981, Simplot Industries donated a 1.5-acre property near the park tennis courts to the Blaine County School District, and the district turned it over the city of Ketchum to be used for additional park land.
Community School students volunteered to lay 60,000 square feet of sod in Sept. 1982, supervised by Tom Denker of Evergreen Landscaping, and the field was playable by 1983—bringing the total amount of Atkinson Park land to 16 acres.
“I don’t know what we would have done without the Simplot field,” said Tracy.
The new Simplot field was used mainly for soccer in the summer and, starting in 1995, for ice skating in the winter. The field’s uses turned out to be the major ingredient in the creation of Atkinson Park building, now five years old.
And, once again, it was Tracy’s energy that realized Ketchum’s first year-round recreation building.
Tracy, as a softball player, retired and un-retired frequently. But it wasn’t like she was wedded to the softball diamond. She cultivated many interests away from the field.
Park Rats in general had a tendency to spend so much time playing ball at the park that, by July, camping and hiking in the nearby hills seemed like unattainable vacations in paradise.
Tracy was never like that.
Golfing became a passion, one she shared with her friend Jan Wygle. “Terry is a steady player, a great golfer, like she was a softball player,” said Wygle. “She loves movies and music, and she loves South Africa and traveling places.”
Always with a book, Tracy loves to read as well. She lost her fluency in Spanish over the years, but she wants to regain it in retirement. But Tracy doesn’t do everything well.
Wygle and Tracy have taken a couple of river trips together including one memorable voyage in a two-man inflatable kayak along the Main Salmon. Wygle had to keep reminding Tracy that kayaking isn’t a team sport.
“Terry isn’t the best partner in a rapid because she always wants to discuss things instead of just doing it,” said Wygle with a laugh, conjuring up the image of pitcher Tracy summoning her fielders for a meeting at the mound in a tough situation. “She prefers to be the captain, even if she has no idea what she’s doing.”
But when push comes to shove, Tracy usually knows what she’s doing.
Take, for instance, her bout with breast cancer 10 years ago and a subsequent fight with colon cancer. She continued working, but underwent six months of chemotherapy at St. Alphonsus Hospital in Boise.
Now she considers herself a cancer survivor.
“I really believe it’s all about attitude,” said Tracy. “I was always positive—never said ‘why me?’ I knew I was going to beat it from Day One. And I had a great support group of friends.”
The one thing that bothered the straight-shooting Tracy about the cancer experience was when people avoided the subject or treated her differently, knowing Tracy had cancer.
Wygle had the proper way of dealing with it, Tracy said. That was with humor.
“Jan heard that one in nine women have breast cancer, so one day she said to me, thank you, thank you, Terry—you’re our softball team!”
Her cancer having stabilized in the mid-1990s, Tracy embarked on her major bricks-and-mortar achievement. Before she retired she wanted to replace the tiny, outdated park storage shed and office with a new facility.
The shed had outlived its usefulness. It was a small garage, stacked to the gills with landscaping equipment. The cramped park office was in the back, between the Collier Brothers garage and the chilly rest rooms.
When it rained during the summer youth program, kids poured into the garage to stay dry. Their options diminished, they tried to avoid scraping themselves on the heavy equipment.
“People were afraid to come in,” said Tracy, remembering many years when parents timidly wandered through the bowels of the garage, looking for someone to register their child in an activity, until the parents finally pleaded, “is anyone here?”
Then, the winter ice rink appeared.
They laid the ice on the lower soccer field in 1995 and the outdoor rink became a smashing success. But, in the cold weather, the children had nowhere to go and warm up indoors.
“We got to the point where we said we needed a facility,” Tracy said. “And the building came about because of the ice rink.”
Jaquet said, “Terry was the one behind the building. She got the architect to donate his services, and she developed the concept and she pushed for the funding—just so the city could have a year-round recreation facility.”
The new building turned out to be a 4,100-square-foot, two-level facility with a large multi-purpose room, an expansive storage shed and offices. It’s been in use since the summer of 1998. The building fits the park well, and it seems like it’s been there forever.
Some derisively called it “Terry’s Condo,” but it was much more than that. It became a home away from home for the 700-plus kids in the park’s summer activities program.
Those strong programs will continue. The city is currently interviewing applicants for her job and expects to have a replacement by September. Jaquet said, “Terry will be missed, but she has an excellent staff and I don’t think our programs will miss a beat.”
No one appreciates the building more than the park staff, a group that has showed remarkable stability over the years due to Tracy’s leadership.
You might also call it friendship.
Tracy has many friends. When she goes home to Connecticut to visit her 95-year-old mother Helen, she gets together with her high school friends. She visits friends in North Carolina and Florida.
The best testament to Tracy might have come from Doran Key, a faithful park employee who has pushed lawnmowers and mown grass at Atkinson Park for it seems like forever.
Key said, “Obviously the park will never be the same without Terry’s presence there. She has done so much.
“But my best memory is laughing with her. That, I will miss more than anything. Just how many jokes we shared, and how many laughs we had.”