Cecil Gilkerson, founder of Harrisonburg Parks & Rec, dies at 92

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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — Cecil Gilkerson, who founded the Harrisonburg Parks & Recreation Department and served as its director for decades, has died at the age of 92.

That's according to a press release from Michael Parks, the director of communications for the City of Harrisonburg.

According to Parks, Gilkerson died on Wednesday, Jan. 8 after a "lifetime of service to supporting and improving our community."

“Cecil was a true pioneer in the recreation profession,” Harrisonburg Director of Parks and Recreation Luanne Santangelo said. “He created the solid foundation for our department that allowed us to continue to serve our community for 65 years. His presence will be missed but his spirit and his legacy will be with us always.”

Gilkerson founded the city's department of Parks and Recreation in 1954 with himself as director, one and a half acres of park land, and some part-time staff.

Over the next 35 years, he steadily grew the department and the city's parks to the point where there are now more than 125 full-time and part-time staff and some 650 acres of park land.

Last year, as the department celebrated their 65th anniversary, they honored Gilkerson's service.

"I think we paid $50,000 for Westover Park and there's 50 acres here, and everybody thought I was crazy, but it came about alright," Gilkerson told WHSV then.

"His contributions to youth engagement helped make Harrisonburg the family-friendly city it is today, as many parents and grandparents across Harrisonburg can point back to a Parks and Recreation program that helped shape
them in their youth into who they are today. There are still many who will say Cecil was as good as a father figure to them when they were growing up, and point to his athletic or playground programs as what kept them safe and healthy when they were kids with too much time on their hands," Parks wrote in the city statement about Gilkerson's death.

Gilkerson was also a founding member of the Virginia Recreation and Park Society, serving as the society’s president. He also was the recipient of the society’s Fellows Award in 1967. His efforts over the years not only made a lasting impact on Harrisonburg, but helped set a standard for what a Parks and Recreation Department should be for all of Virginia.

“The Parks and Recreation profession lost a true pioneer on Wednesday,” said Jim Stutts, executive director of Virginia Recreation and Park Society and a long-time friend and colleague of Mr. Gilkerson. “In addition to his work in his beloved city, Cecil was a leader throughout Virginia and the country. With his leadership and influence, many localities in Virginia were able to establish their own park and recreation programs.

“In addition, Cecil was part of a Governor’s Commission that established a blueprint for outdoor recreation in Virginia. This ‘blueprint’, now referred to as The Virginia’s Outdoor Plan, is still in use today, and is updated every five years.”

The City of Harrisonburg says they extend their deepest condolences to the Gilkerson family, and would like to thank them for all they have done for our community.

Service details honoring Mr. Gilkerson are to be determined.