Robert W. Crawford had a long and distinguished career in park and recreation and was recognized as one of the greatest leaders in the field. He was influential in transforming the way cities and residents viewed parks. He promoted community involvement in recreation decisions and expanded the types of activities that were included in recreation programming to meet the needs of all citizens from tots to seniors.
Robert was born on April 11, 1906 in Lonaconing, Maryland to Scottish parents who had immigrated to America in 1905. His father was a coal miner and had been encouraged by a brother to join him in the coal mines of Maryland. His parents were deeply religious and raised their children in a Christian home. The strong values he developed early guided him throughout his life, and he was known for his integrity, honesty, and ethical principles.
His family moved to Albia, Iowa in September of 1910, where his father once again worked in the coal mines in nearby Hocking, Iowa. At the age of 16, Robert worked part time in the mines during the summer and on Saturdays, but enjoyed playing football, basketball, and track at Albia High School during the school year.
His father encouraged him to get an education, and Robert enrolled in Des Moines University, 75 miles from home. He played football, basketball, and track while pursuing his studies in education. He worked for the Park Department during the summers as a playground and security officer.
After graduation in 1929, Robert took a teaching position in Exira, Iowa as a high school physics teacher, where he also coached football, basketball, and baseball. He spent a successful three years in Exira with winning sports teams and his integration into the community. However, a desire to move to a larger school led him to Corning, Iowa in 1932 to be a physical education teacher and coach for football, basketball, and track, where he again made a huge impact on the community. He met Dorothy Mollenhoff, an English teacher, in Corning, and they were married in August of 1934.
Lew Barrett, the former superintendent of parks in Des Moines who had hired Robert to work while at the university, had moved to Newark, New Jersey, where he had been employed for several years. He saw great potential in Robert to move into the recreation field and encouraged him to work for him in New Jersey and attend the National Recreation School (NRS) in New York City. Deciding to explore this new opportunity, Robert and his new wife drove to Newark in September only to discover that there was no job waiting for him, since Lew had been recently fired from his job when a new mayor took office. They drove on to New York City to let the National Recreation School know he wouldn’t be attending. However, the staff felt he was exactly the kind of person they wanted to encourage to join the recreation field, and they promised them both jobs if he would attend. True to their word, Robert became athletic director at two churches, while Dorothy worked at a settlement house, Stuyvessant House, during the year they were in New York City.
There were three courses of instruction at the National Recreation School. The Theory of Recreation presented the philosophy of leisure, its role in contemporary society, and character education through play and recreation. Recreation Administration covered the organization and administration of play centers and park areas, principles of planning and constructing play facilities, budgeting and financial management, personnel administration, conducting community surveys, and principles of publicity. The Recreation Program course examined how to organize and lead various games and athletic events including baseball, softball, basketball, tennis, and others as well as community drama, community music, arts and crafts, nature study, dancing, and teaching activities for pre-adolescent children.
While finishing up his studies at NRS, Howard Braucher, director of the National Recreation Association (NRA), asked him to conduct a study of recreation needs in Hastings-On-Hudson, a small community 20 miles north of Manhattan. The townspeople were demanding better recreation for their community’s children after experiencing problems with juvenile delinquency. After completing the study, Robert made four recommendations: build three new playgrounds, open schools to after-hours programs, broaden the recreation program to conduct various year-round activities, and hire a full-time recreation director. Because he was a recent graduate of NRS and a qualified recreation professional, the town hired Robert as their recreation director.
Although their original desire for a recreation program was to curb juvenile delinquency, within two years the program was seen as a community benefit for all its citizens. Robert was able to accomplish all of his recommendations for improving the community’s recreation needs with expanded activities for all age groups and interests that included leagues and tournaments for a wide range of sports; activities such as chess and checkers clubs, first aid, folk dancing, and metal crafts; special events and holiday parties; organized outings; and a Boys’ Center and a Girls’ Center. His central tenet of philosophy of recreation was the necessity to have an effective recreation program that would go beyond traditional activities to include programs of interest to all citizens.
During his time in Hastings-On-Hudson, Robert continued his studies at New York University and earned his master’s degree. After six years in Hastings, Robert was ready to move on to another challenge. He was offered a position as the director of the community center in the Red Hook housing project in Brooklyn. The large housing project was a melting pot of races and nationalities, and his two years there gave him valuable experience in learning to balance the needs and interests of diverse ethnic groups.
In 1941 Robert moved to Montclair, New Jersey to become their recreation director. Montclair was a much larger town with a larger budget to work with. In addition to broadening their program activities, Robert also convinced the school board to open the school facilities after hours for activities, which became a successful endeavor. He worked in Montclair for almost two years, until he took a leave of absence to accept a commission in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
His first duty assignment as a second lieutenant was at the Albany Landing Equipment Depot near Oakland, California. He arrived in Oakland in April of 1943. Because of his recreation background, he served as welfare officer and along with other duties he developed and ran recreation programs to occupy the men when they were off duty. His wife and two sons were able to join him in Oakland and remained with him until he shipped out to the Philippines in March of 1945. During his nine months in Manila, he served as a welfare officer for the Seventh Fleet.
When he returned stateside, he was assigned back to Oakland to help close the Albany base. He was very familiar with the Oakland recreation department and was eager to work there when his time was up with his military service. He was selected as the recreation superintendent in 1946 and remained there for almost six years.
The Oakland recreation department had one of the best and most forward-thinking recreation programs in the country, with a wide range of activities and facilities including playgrounds, swimming pools, a golf course, and mountain camps. When Robert took control, however, he found that staff performance and morale were declining, key personnel had left, and facilities were not being maintained properly. Robert implemented a strategy to improve morale by quickly setting to work on several projects to refurbish and make improvements at existing facilities. Seeing quick results, the positive momentum dissolved the morale problem almost overnight.
Robert was a strong proponent for cooperation and citizen involvement with the recreation department. He saw the need for the park, recreation, and school departments in the city to work together effectively to eliminate overlapping efforts, improve facilities, and save the taxpayers money. Under his leadership, the park and recreation departments worked together in remodeling existing facilities and building new parks and playgrounds. He also promoted cooperation between the recreation and school departments in the use of school facilities for after-hours activities, in building school playgrounds, and in building public swimming pools near schools for their use as well as the general public.
While in Oakland, he also listened to the citizens’ needs and developed tot lots for preschool children. Camping was an important activity that included two mountain family camps and in-town summer camps, which offered programming for children with disabilities as well as senior citizens. Senior citizen clubs that offered activities, such as card games, dancing, excursions, musical programs, bowling, hiking, and sewing, were an innovative expansion that was a result of citizens’ requests. The recreation department also offered an umpires’ training school, baseball clinics, and home recreation contests.
In 1952 Robert was approached by Freddie Mann from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to work with him in the recreation department. Philadelphia was the third largest city in America at the time, and most department heads were political appointees with little experience. Freddie Mann had asked many people who they would recommend to work with him as deputy commissioner, and every response was Robert Crawford. The Crawfords were happy in Oakland and it took several attempts to persuade Robert to move to Philadelphia. Freddie promised him that within a couple of years he would step down and allow Robert to be the commissioner. Accepting the position led to 29 very successful years in Philadelphia.
Robert found a challenging situation upon arrival in Philadelphia. Facilities were in bad shape, there was little recreation programming, the staff was loaded with political appointees who did little work, and the community was demanding more recreational opportunities. Within the first three months Robert fired 50 staff members and boosted morale. Next he surveyed the facilities and concluded there was not one well-developed park or playground in the entire city. For political reasons, he suggested to Freddie that they hire the National Recreation Association to conduct a study of the facilities. Their findings agreed with his, which created awareness of the situation and promoted support for the needed changes. Once again to build momentum, Robert quickly began refurbishing projects of existing facilities and began designing new facilities. He expanded the recreation programming significantly to include activities for all ages and implemented several programs to establish community support. When Robert began in Philadelphia there were less than 100 parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, and recreation centers. When he retired 29 years later, the recreation department oversaw 850, including 84 swimming pools, almost 400 neighborhood parks and playgrounds, 47 recreation centers, four ice rinks, the Veterans Stadium, two mountain camps, a golf course, a wildlife preserve, and the open-air amphitheater, Robin Hood Dell.
A ten-member Recreation Coordination Board was established to prevent overlapping and duplication of recreation services. As the recreation commissioner, Robert chaired the board to coordinate the efforts of the recreation department, public schools, Fairmount Park Commission, the housing authority, youth centers, a crime prevention association, and many private organizations. The city also created an art commission that contributed murals, sculpture, and other artwork to public playgrounds and recreation centers. Robert was a very visible leader in the community making many public appearances. He felt the media exposure was important to build public support for recreation.
Politics play a big part in working with big-city government. Robert’s experiences led him to believe there were five rules to follow for political survival: 1) Win the support of the voters by performing, show progress while waiting for results, and avoid political favoritism; 2) Stay out of politics if you want to stay above politics; 3) Protect your personal and professional integrity whatever the risk; 4) Work with the system rather than against it, give the mayor and council members credit, and know how to use the system to get things done; and 5) Be willing to put your job on the line if necessary to protect your authority.
Robert believed that citizen involvement in recreation planning was essential for success. His community involvement in his former positions in other cities had confirmed his belief. Although he faced skepticism from many, he formed a program that included 127 local councils, 12 district councils, and 1 citywide council to coordinate the work with the community with more than 3,000 volunteers. These councils proved to be very successful. He taught others the lessons he learned in conducting public meetings: 1) Attend the meeting yourself; 2) Be prepared; 3) Believe in what you are selling; 4) Lead but don’t dominate the meeting; 5) Keep it real; and 6) Take names and addresses of community attendees for future communication.
The recreation department worked closely with Fairmount Park, which was ten times the size of Central Park in New York City. It covered 4,700 acres and was the largest municipal park in the United States. Robert served as president of the commission for ten years until his retirement in 1981.
Veterans Stadium, then home of the Philadelphia Eagles and the Philadelphia Phillies, was also under the supervision of the recreation department at that time. The annual Army-Navy game was also held at the stadium. The Mummers’ Parade held on New Year’s Day also fell under their direction. The Mummers’ Parade dated to pre-colonial times and is a large event that features thousands of elaborately-costumed participants who compete for cash prizes.
During the early days of Robert’s career he had few professionals in the field to serve as mentors. Soon after moving to Philadelphia he realized that he could help the next generation of recreation professionals bridge the gap between academia and the real work of recreation by providing on-the-job training. In 1956 he worked with the National Recreation Association to create an internship program in recreation administration. He and his staff administered the program, and the program expanded to other cities when the NRA merged with several professional groups to create the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). The intern program accepted graduates with degrees in recreation and was a work-intensive environment to give the interns the practical experience they would need in the field. The program proved very successful.
Robert believed it was important to be involved with professional memberships. He was an active member of NRA and the subsequent NRPA as well as the Society of Recreation Workers of America, and the American Recreation Society to name a few. He was an original board member in 1965 and was elected president of NRPA in 1971. He was the executive director of the National Recreation Foundation as well as the secretary-treasurer from 1970 to 1981. He was awarded the Ralph C. Wilson Award by NRPA in 1987, and in 1990 NRPA established the Robert W. Crawford Lecture Series, an annual lecture of its history and heritage, and in 1992 established the Robert W. Crawford Young Professional Award.1 In 1987 Robert suggested a hall of fame to recognize individuals who have made outstanding and lasting contributions to the advancement of recreation and parks. NRPA established the program in 1988 and named it in his honor, Robert W. Crawford Recreation and Park Hall of Fame.2 Robert was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001.3 He received numerous honors and awards throughout his distinguished career.
Robert believed there were six principles that were the foundation on which a career in recreation should be built: 1) Recreation is a necessity, not a luxury; 2) Recreation is for everyone; 3) Recreation is everyone’s business; 4) Citizens must have a voice in determining their recreational destiny; 5) Recreation professionals must rise above politics; and 6) Recreation professionals must band together to create a strong profession on the national, state, and local levels.
His thoughts on leadership included that a leader is going somewhere and is able to persuade others to go with him; can cultivate the technique of getting things done through other people; is aware of human problems and has acquired the art of kindliness and persuasion; knows how to listen; isn’t afraid to make changes; and has fun.4
Robert retired as Philadelphia’s Commissioner of Recreation in 1981 and moved to Walnut Creek, California. He was encouraged by family and friends to write his autobiography, Reflections of a Recreation Professional, which was published in 1993. He died in 1995 on his 89th birthday.5
- 1. Crawford, Robert Wilson. Reflections of a Recreation Professional. Arlington, VA: National Recreation and Park Association. 1993.
- 2. “Robert W. Crawford Hall of Fame.” National Recreation and Park Association. < http://www.nrpa.org/uploadedFiles/nrpa.org/Membership/Awards/Robert_W_Crawford_Hall_of_Fame/Brochure.pdf > 29 Nov. 2016.
- 3. “Hall of Fame Inductees.” National Recreation and Park Association. < http://www.nrpa.org/uploadedFiles/nrpa.org/Membership/Awards/Robert_W_Crawford_Hall_of_Fame/HALL-OF-FAME-INDUCTEES.pdf > 29 Nov. 2016.
- 4. Op. cit., Crawford.
- 5. Elliott, J. Michael. “Robert W. Crawford, 89, Father of Philadelphia’s Parks System.” The New York Times. 15 April 1995. < http://www.nytimes.com/1995/04/15/obituaries/robert-w-crawford-89-father-of-philadelphia-s-parks-system.html > 30 Nov. 2016.