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Ron Lehman honored for 50 years of enriching people’s lives

The Channahon Park District honored Lehman and will rename Community Park in his honor.

Channahon Park District board member Ron Lehman poses in front of the handicap friendly playground at the Arrowhead Community Center in Channahon. Friday, May 13, 2022, in Channahon.

When Ronald Lehman took 12 hours of parks and recreation for his physical education degree at Northern Illinois University, he simply fulfilled a requirement for his future career as a school coach.

But those 12 hours turned into 50 years of serving park districts locally and on the state level.

On April 25, the Channahon Park District honored Lehman for his five decades of service as a park board commissioner, an unpaid position, that helped the park district receive national recognition.

Community Park on McClintock Road, the first park the district developed, will be renamed the Ronald D. Lehman Community Park, according to a news release from the park district. Lehman said his service is due to the support of Channahon’s residents.

“You’ve got to be voted in on this,” Lehman said. “And they were willing to let me go back each election and put me back on the board.”

A 50-year commitment to anything is admirable. But a 50-year commitment to enhancing the community is life-changing for residents. The 2021 “Engagement with Parks” report from the National Recreation and Park Association shows the high value people place on parks and recreation facilities: 260 million people in the U.S. visited a park or recreation facility at least once in the past year.

The report also found that four out of five people “seek high-quality parks and recreation when choosing a place to live.”

But in the late 1950s, when Lehman started teaching and coaching in Channahon, Lehman wasn’t considering any of this. His wife Mary Ann was in college at the time and the couple decided to stay in Channahon and become involved in the community when she started teaching locally, too.

“I put two terms on the village board and that included helping to develop things that could help the town grow,” Lehman said. “A group of people that we talked to liked the idea of a park district. I did not join that group. I really advocated for it but I had a good basketball team that year — by that time I was at the high school — and devoted by my time to that.”

The Channahon Park District was initially formed on Aug. 13, 1971, to manage the 12-acre I & M Canal State Park in Channahon, the park district website said. Lehman became a commissioner in 1972 because he said it was “something that needed to be done.”

“Someone on the first park district board got transferred,” Lehman said. “And my wife – and I give her the credit for this, said to me, ‘You talk so much about it. Why not put your name in to replace him?’ That’s what I did and I’m here yet today.”

Recreational activities in those early years included day camp, softball, swimming at the Manor Motel, summer events and tennis lessons, according to the park district. More activities were added over time.

“Our town was so receptive to the growth of the park district,” Lehman said. “And we’re still trying to meet the needs of our people. As the town grew, so did the needs of our people.”

Lehman credited the park district’s growth to former president Chuck Szoke, who retired in 2019, and current president Michael J. Leonard. The Channahon Park District now spans 500 acres, which includes 19 parks and four facilities.

“It’s just not about teaching swimming anymore,” Lehman said. “It’s really how can we enrich the quality of life for people and do it in a community way within the partnership of the rest of the government agencies. I think partnership is really our key to success.”

He is especially proud of the 78-acre nature park Arroyo Trails, which the Channahon Park District manages. The People for Channahon Parks Foundation, which Lehman helped found, planned and funded the project by raising over $2 million, he said.

Lehman had the idea for Arroyo Trails after taking a walk with a grandchild in a similar park in Michigan, he said. He thought “getting kids outdoors to explore and play” was a good idea.

“I think that will be the highlight of the park district as it develops more and more,” Lehman said.

Lehman said he wished Skateland Recreation Center didn’t have to close. But only a small group used it and the building needed plenty of renovations, he said.

“I really felt bad about that,” Lehman said. “But we’re working with taxpayer money. We couldn’t afford to put all this money into a facility.”

Funding for senior programs is more of a priority now that the senior community in Channahon is growing, he said.

“But we are also having to refix things that are wearing out,” Lehman said. “And so we’re busy planning how to go about both aspects of that. I think that’s the challenge now.”

Lehman also is the retired principal and athletic director of Minooka Community High School and charter member of the Channahon-Minooka Rotary Club. He’s belonged to the Minooka Education As­sociation (past president), Illinois Education Association, National Education Association, Tri-County Semi-Pro Baseball League (past president), and served on multiple committees at Channahon United Methodist Church.

Here is a glance at Lehman’s 50 years, according to the park district and a resolution in Lehman’s honor from Illinois’ 95th General Assembly.

1972: Appointed to the park district board on April 13, 1972, eight months after the Channahon Park District was formed.

1987 to 1994: Board member of the Illinois Association of Park Districts.

1991: Approved by former President George Bush and appointed by then-secretary of interior Manuel Lujan, Jr. to serve as a key board member on the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor Commission. Served as board member until 1998 and as chairman from 1995 to 1998.

1992 to 1993: Served as president of the Illinois Association of Park Districts.

1993: Helped open the Tomahawk Aquatic Center and Heritage Bluffs Golf Club.

1994: Received the 1993 Illinois Association of Park Districts Commissioner of the Year Award, IAPD’s highest honor.

1996: Named Village of Channahon Citizen of the Year.

1997: Channahon Park District earned a National Gold Medal Grand Award.

1997: Named the National Recreation and Park Association Great Lakes Region Citizen Board Member of the Year. Served the NRPA board of directors for 12 years.

2003: Helped develop Heritage Crossing Field House with Channahon School District 17.

2007: Received the Illinois Parks & Recreation Association Distinguished Service to Leisure Award, IPRA’s highest honor.

2009: Founding member of the People for Channahon Parks Foundation.

2014: Channahon Park District was recognized as an Illinois Distinguished Accredited Agency.

2019: Helped bring Sengo Adventure Garden, the area’s first inclusive playground, to the village (in partnership with Channahon Township).

For more information, visit channahonpark.org/%20ron-lehman-50-years-of-service.