New Lenox parks director honored by state association

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Editor’s Note: The following story was published in the SouthtownStar on Feb. 19 of this year. It is being republished as part of Progress 2014, a salute to “Caring in our Communities.”

Just talking about being honored makes Greg Lewis emotional. His name may be on the award he recently received, he said, but it belongs to so many others.

The executive director of the New Lenox Community Park District was never supposed to be anything but a laborer, he said. That’s why he was shocked when the Illinois Association of Park Districts presented him with the 2014 Honored Professional of the Year award.

“I wasn’t supposed to go to school, either,” Lewis said. “I should have been a farmer or a carpenter.”

Learning the ropes from the bottom up is how Lewis became successful. He grew up in a family of several generations of hard-working farmers in Manhattan Township, attending Peotone High School.

“I grew up in Peotone and Manhattan and it was all about just being honest with people and hard work,” he said.

But he ended up going to college and was part of the first graduating class of Illinois State University’s then-new fitness management program. He started as a weight room attendant in the campus rec center. By his junior year, he was running the center’s entire fitness program.

After graduation, he tried for six months to work for a major health club, but did not like the high-pressure sales aspect. It was about that time that he met his wife, Dawn, at his brother’s wedding. They have raised two daughters, Kelli, now a junior at Western Michigan University; and Nicole, a sophomore at Peotone High School.

It was 25 years ago when Lewis first came to the New Lenox Park District. At the time, the district had 15 parks totaling 351 acres. But the village was beginning to grow.

“We were in dire straits as far as parks were falling apart, equipment was falling apart,” Lewis said about the early days.

He spent the last 14 years as executive director. Today, the district has 35 park sites covering 566 acres, he said.

Still shocked by the honor, Lewis was shy about accepting the credit.

“I’m getting all worked up again,” he said, his voice choking as he talked about the volunteers, staff and family. “That’s where the credit should be, I’ll accept it on their behalf.”

The honor was presented at the park district association’s annual conference in Chicago in January.

Under Lewis’ leadership, the park district also has earned the coveted Government Finance Officers Association Excellence in Accounting and Financial Award for the past five years.

In a letter to the editor sent to the SouthtownStar, New Lenox Community Park District Board President Brian Fischer wrote of Lewis: “His leadership has been instrumental in keeping the park district financially sound, while at the same time, serving the recreational needs of the 60,000-plus people who reside in the New Lenox Community Park District area.”

Intergovernmental agreements have been a key part of Lewis’ success. He partnered with school districts and other municipalities in different ways to make the park district more financially efficient. For example, the Sanctuary Golf Course, 485 N. Marley Road, is owned by the park district, but golfers from Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210 teams practice there and call the Sanctuary home, Lewis said.

“With those intergovernmental agreements, we make every dollar stretch,” Lewis said.

Lewis oversees a budget exceeding $7 million, plus another $5 million for the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association recreation center that is under construction.

“At the end of the day, it all takes a team, and that’s what we’ve got here,” he said.