Willis Winters, who grew Dallas’ parks and saved Dallas’ history, is retiring from City Hall
Willis Winters, the architect, planner, and conservationist whose main job is to bring a measure of joy to Dallas residents, announced Monday that he is retiring as director of the parks and recreation division.
It is a title he has held since January 2013. His long list of notable triumphs, however, goes back much further, to the 20 years he previously spent as the park manager and assistant director of the department. It was back when stingy city administrators and city council members targeted the department every time a budget shortage or financial crisis arose.
His last day is October 22nd.
Winters – a native of Garland, whose father served as director of the city’s parks and recreation department for more than three decades – spent most of his career as a civil servant in a town hall that too often viewed green space as a luxury rather than a necessity. Still, he managed to wring every last blade of grass and every last brick from every penny on the dollar the city put into parks and recreation centers, sports facilities, and water sports facilities.
During his tenure, Winters was involved in the creation of two master plans, including the A Renaissance Plan 2002; the redesign of the urban golf courses; the expansion of the city’s network of roads; the development of downtown parks and Klyde Warren Park; and the opening of everything from the MoneyGram Soccer Park in Elm Fork to the new water parks.
He helped recruit The Trust for Public Land to support parks in parts of that city without significant green space, and worked with the Texas Tree Foundation to shade a city that is set on “crickets.” And he has worked with the Dallas, Richardson, and Plano school districts to create neighborhood parks on campus that are low cost to taxpayers.
Winters also brought art to the neighborhood and recruited nationally renowned architects to design and build pavilions in dozens of parks across the city. He said the company was “especially close to my heart” because it “sent the message that it’s the small projects that matter in a city with big projects”.
Under his leadership, the parks department received national accreditation from the National Recreation and Park Association – an honor given to 2% of all park departments across the country. And I don’t know what he’ll get as a parting gift: Winters has already been honored by every organization in town.
“The city under his leadership is experiencing a park renaissance,” said outgoing Park Board President Bobby Abtahi. “People have the greatest confidence in Willis Winters.”
Winters sent his resignation letter Monday afternoon to city officials, councilors, and division partners at the Dallas Zoo, Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, and Trinity River Audubon Center. His letter to the park board was short, just a few sentences. He thanked Abtahi and the board “for the profound opportunity to improve the quality of life in our great city”.
This is another thing Winters does well – by doing his part to make our city a better place. On Monday he told me he’d rather let other people talk about heritage and just said that his greatest strength is “drawing a designer’s eye to the parking system, just a different way of looking at things”.
The 62-year-old Winters said on Monday that this was “the hardest decision I have ever made”. In a perfect world, he said, he would have stayed until the National Recreation and Park Association holds its annual conference here in 2023. But 2023 is still a long way off. And that’s not a perfect world.
Winters ushered in 2012 from a hospital bed after being brought back to Dallas from New Mexico, where he suddenly and mysteriously fell ill. For weeks he could hardly speak or breathe; As he lay in bed tied by tubes and wires, it was not clear in those early days whether he would even survive. With Mrs. Jan at his side, Winters recovered for several months and is still suffering from the consequences of this illness.
“I have to concentrate on my health, which I never had the opportunity,” said Winters on Monday. “That will be important to me – and to concentrate on my family, who always have not received the attention they deserve from me.”
We talked for a moment about his son Will, who died in 2005 at the age of 16 of a blood clot following foot surgery. Will played soccer at Woodrow Wilson High School and after his death the Dallas Park Foundation helped raise the money to complete and maintain the pavilion in the heart of Randall Park across from the East Dallas campus. Winters designed the pavilion in honor of his son.
“I have a lot of memories of him, not only physically, but also when you walk around town and think about things we did together as father and son,” said Winters. “And it’s good. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I still think about it a lot.”
Willis Winters, Park and Recreation Director for the City of Dallas, on the boneyard surrounded by Dallas history(Evans Caglage / employee photographer)
I’ve spent countless hours with Winters over the past 26 years. I think part of it was because he was hoping to instill this love for the city on my own son Harry, who is now 16 years old. Winters has written and co-written several books on local architecture, including a story of the Fair Park. and when Harry was in third grade, he chose that Fair Park Band all by himself for a book review. When I was telling this about winter, he asked if he could speak to Harry’s class.
When Winters showed up, he brought a handful of old Fair Park postcards that he gave as souvenirs to each of Harry’s classmates. The teachers said they would never take Fair Park for granted again.
He also loved giving excursions on the assets under his jurisdiction. I was fortunate to see Dallas through the eyes of a man who co-wrote the American Institute of Architects Guide to Dallas Architecture and several others about the people who built a metropolis on the prairie.
On a humid day in October 2009, we put our mudders on to stroll through the Main Street Garden, which is under construction and underwater. When we stood in the middle of the first park in downtown Dallas, he ticked off the surrounding buildings and their ages – the old town hall built in 1913, the Hilton and Titche Goettinger buildings from the 1920s, the Mercantile from the late 1940s, the statler and old library built in the 1950s and so on.
Three years later he invited me to the “Boneyard” in East Dallas, where Winters was quietly hiding bits of the city’s past – the Dallas Architecture Club, PC Cobb Stadium, the Titche Goettinger Building – that had been scraped off or leveled to make room for his future. And his Fair Park tours were a must.
That’s because Winters oversaw the restoration of the Fair Park – the preservation of the 1936 murals faded or disappeared, the preservation of the buildings crumbled to the touch. This town has just been arguing for years about who to give the keys to Fair Park to. Without winter there would have been no fair park.
“He knows the history of Dallas and is the reason why much of our history is still intact,” Abtahi told me on Monday. “They don’t do public servants like Willis Winters anymore, which is why I’m so sad about it. He gave his life to the city. And he’s irreplaceable.”