The Oertel Groups' mission of "loving where you live" extends beyond the homes we pair our clients with. It's about being an active member of your community and having an appreciation for the history that shaped the place we call home. John and I are active board members on the Friends of Lake Forest Parks and Rec which host our favorite event, the Tree Lighting Ceremony along with other great events like the 4th of July Fireworks, Summer Music Fest, and the Fred Jackson Golf Outing! We have absolutely loved being a part of this foundation and giving back to the community that we love so much!
The founder of the Friends Foundation is Fred Jackson who is still a board member to this day! I had the honor of interviewing Fred (who is also a long-time, 3rd generation, Lake Forest community member and former Director of the LF Parks and Rec) at the Deerpath Inn a couple of months ago and I enjoyed every minute of it! I am beyond honored to share a snippet of our conversation, in the interview below!
I was born on December 6, 1942, the third Fred Jackson of three generations of Jacksons to live and work in Lake Forest. I have been told that I was the third baby born in the original Lake Forest Hospital. I was a “War Baby” since my dad was in the navy during the second world war. The story that has been handed down to me was that my mother desperately wanted me to be the first baby born at the “new” Lake Forest Hospital since they were offering a $50 War Bond to the first one born there. With my dad was away at war, My uncle took my mother out to the country (west Lake Forest) and drove over some bumpy roads to encourage childbirth per her request! Well, I wasn’t the firstborn there but I was the 3rd! I can still hear my mother exclaim throughout my childhood when I was late for dinner, “Fred, you were born late, and you’re always late!”
My father was a postal carrier in Lake Forest. The kids on his mail route would call him the “Juicy Fruit Man” because he would always give a stick of Juicy Fruit gum to the kids who would greet him. After delivering the mail each day, he would change clothes and head out to a second job of landscaping on an estate. Money was hard to come by but never seemed to be a critical problem. After all, my parents lived through the Depression! He helped build our home in the Northmoor Subdivision for $7,200. I helped him put the roof on and paint the garage. He remodeled our basement into a family room.
My Mom grew up in North Chicago with a family of thirteen. My Mom had to drop out of school after 8th grade to work and support her mom. They grew their own vegetables, had a cow, and would walk the tracks to gather coal for their furnace. She always worked & her work ethic was a lesson learned and a true gift After she married my dad, she continued to work at various factories. One of her jobs was at the Hampton Greeting Card Company in Libertyville. She took the trolly to and from work. I can remember that my Dad and I would pick her up at the train station which is now the site of the new pumping station on Deerpath Road across from the Deerpath Golf Course.
My grandfather was a gardener on the Cyrus McCormick estate so my dad and his brother and sisters lived on the estate and explored both the Cyrus and Harold McCormick estates. The estates were abandoned in the 1950s, and had been vandalized but were still magnificent. You could see the gold leaf ceilings and marble sculptures. But my dad would take me there and let me explore the ruins as he and the last superintendent, Mr. Higgins, would sit in a tree swing and smoke their pipes. In the springtime, the ravines were covered with flowers. I was told that the McCormicks would buy bushel baskets of flower bulbs and then direct the working staff to plant them on the sides of the ravines. It was something that Monet would be envious of. My adventures through the estate took me through the formal gardens, the sunken lily ponds, the lookout seating areas, and the Harold McCormick mansion. I would adventure down the elevator shaft that would lead from the bluff to a swimming pool that was on the beach.
The Jacksons have lived in five different homes within a few blocks of South Park for 100 years. I grew up in the area around South Park (South Park was my second home). In fact, my father had once lived in a home on Washington Circle that was provided by Cyrus McCormick. He later moved with his family to a home on Illinois Road (called Bushwood Road then) across the road from Farwell Field. I now live on Ryan Place. Lake Forest was perfect for me. The population was small and everyone seemed like they knew everyone. Life was simple. There were two neighborhood grocery stores, South Park Grocery and the B&B, where we could buy a frozen Snickers Bar for a nickel. We built a home on Greenview Place where I spent my youth. It was a little like “Mayberry”: no locked doors and freedom to roam. I would have breakfast with Mom and tell her I’d be home for dinner. I spent my timeline riding my bike to South Park, I loved to watch the men play softball or baseball and I worked as their batboy. While there were a number of wealthy families in town, there was also a strong working-class presence. Both respected each other. I’ve always told new residents that Lake Forest was a wonderful place to live and raise a family if you could maintain two things: a strong work ethic and a solid value system.
As a kid, I had paper routes, cut neighbor's lawns, worked at the Children Center in Lake Bluff, delivered mail at the Post Office, shined shoes at the Onwentsia Club, and worked in a dog kennel in Lake Bluff. But the job I loved the most was working at the Recreation Center. I started when I was 15 by umpiring baseball games for $5 a game. At age 16 I was given the opportunity to supervise the Recreation Center, serve as a Playground Leader, and coach baseball, football, and basketball. The Recreation Center was originally located in a building behind Marshall Fields.
The education system in Lake Forest is one of its major benefits. I was privileged to attend five different schools in Lake Forest: Gorton, Deerpath, Lake Forest High School, Lake Forest College, and Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. Deerpath was opened in 1955. At the time I was in 6th grade and everything was new. I played football. Yes, Deerpath had a football team! And basketball for Coach Norm Erickson. Who would later become my mentor and lifelong friend. He taught me lessons that I have carried with me throughout the years of my personal & professional life. One I recall from high school: I was not a great football player, but I was fortunate to be surrounded by a number of great athletes. At the awards assembly to honor the football team, I was so nervous. What would Mr. Erickson say about me? I just hoped he wouldn’t embarrass me! When it came to my name, Mr. Erickson said ”Fred really used his noodle, learned the plays for both end positions, and really helped the team”. Talk about building a young man’s self-esteem! Throughout the rest of my personal and professional life, I always found something positive to say about our staff or my friends and family. Lesson learned.
As a side note, Norm Erickson, who passed away this year at age 93, was the owner and head of a summer camp in Minnesota, Camp Mishawaka. Our daughter and one of our sons spent summers there where they experienced the spirituality of the North Woods. The McCormick Day Camp is modeled after that experience. The McCorrmick Day Camp has always been one of the most popular programs. It was established in the ’50s and continues today.
After Deerpath, it was off to Lake Forest High School, another wonderful experience. I played basketball, baseball, cross country, and track, made a lot of lifelong friends, and had a lot of fun. Our social life was limited to squeezing six friends into a booth at Krafft’s Drug Store and sharing an order of fries for 26 cents or going to the Cellar (on the second floor of the Recreation Center) on Friday nights and dancing to the tunes on a jukebox.
College was an adventure. All I really wanted to do was play baseball and basketball. I enrolled at Lake Forest College and ended up majoring in beer drinking at the Lantern! I played basketball but soon lost interest in academics and headed to Southern California to live with my uncle and enroll in a Junior College. Tuition was $12.50 a semester. I made the basketball team and found time to study. Just before our first game, I was pulled aside and told I was ineligible because I wasn’t a legal resident of California. However, I missed the Midwest and the changing seasons. So, I headed home and took a couple of classes at LFC again. Then, I enrolled in a business school in Chicago. After graduating from business school, I was about to be drafted into the Army and faced the possibility of being sent to Vietnam. In one of those twists of fate that everyone faces during their lifetime, I was rejected by the Army due to high blood pressure.
The Recreation Center became my second home. I accepted every job available, from supervising roller skating on Friday nights, setting up and supervising the trampoline, refinishing gym floors; even cleaning bathrooms! My hunger for athletics was satisfied through coaching football, basketball, and baseball. One of the responsibilities that I was given was to organize and supervise field trips. My first trip was to take a busload of teenage girls to old Comiskey Park to see a Beatles concert. Somehow with all the crying and screaming, we managed to get everyone home safely. The Cubs were always good to us. As a matter of fact, I have a letter from the Cubs dated in the 1950s inviting us to a game with a price of 50 cents a ticket.
The Recreation Department was a small department of the City when I was in college. It had only one full-time employee and a budget of less the $100,000. The Director of Recreation, John McCarthy, took me under his wing. He kept suggesting that I should pursue a degree in Recreation. One day I decided to take his advice. Each of us has a defining moment when we make decisions that have a lasting impact on our lives. I can remember the exact time and location of my decision to pursue the field of parks and recreation as a profession. I was coaching a 5th-grade flag football team at West Park when it hit me like a lightning bolt. Give up the thought of chasing a big salary and do what you love! The following year I was offered the position of Assistant Director of Recreation, the second full-time position at the Recreation Department.
When the Police and Fire Department moved to the new Public Safety facility, we requested the use of the old Fire/Police stations. We moved our offices there, constructed a Dance Studio on the second floor of the Fire Station, and created a Teen Center where the Firemen used to park their trucks. But the greatest thing the Director ever did was to hire a new Secretary...
Jeanne (now Mrs. Jackson) and I worked together for a few years and she always supported me. I was immediately smitten. She was always there to encourage me through difficult times. Since my childhood days of ventures on the McCormick’s estates, I had always dreamed of proposing on the bridge over the ravine on the Cyrus McCormick estate. So one beautiful summer evening, I asked Jeanne to go for a walk near Bluff’s Edge. It was 70 degrees, a full moon, and a light breeze off the lake. After she nervously asked me where we were going, I told her just to trust me. When we reached the bridge, I asked her to marry me. Her response was: “I’ll do anything you want, but let’s get the hell out of here!” So much for romance, but, honestly she's not much of an outdoors person!. We have been married for almost 50 wonderful years, raised three beautiful children in Lake Forest, and now enjoy eight cherished grandchildren.
The biggest improvement over the years was a new Recreation Center. We convinced the Mayor and City Council that the old Recreation Center was outdated. They agreed and directed us to design a new Recreation Center for no more than $985,000. The plan was to hold a referendum, and the thought was that anything over a million dollars would be turned down by the taxpayers. So, Byron Prais from the Building Department and I designed a new Recreation Center. We designed everything in squares and rectangles so that future additions could easily be made. The gym was smaller than we wanted but we came within the projected budget and passed the referendum.
With the new Recreation Center, we seemed to pick up momentum as the residents began to see the value of recreation. In the early ’80s the City was experiencing serious erosion at our lakefront. A very ambitious plan was put together to offset the erosion and add some recreational amenities to our beach. At the same time, a community swimming pool was still high on the desires of the residents. So, two referendums were held on the same day: an 8.5 million dollar improvement to the lakefront and a 1.5 million dollar swimming pool. The lakefront referendum passed with a large majority, but the swimming pool referendum lost. Almost 40 years later, the Beach is still considered the crown jewel of the city.
And now on to the Arts! I always thought the City of Lake Forest should have a first-class Art Center. Our current arts program was limited to a small room at the Recreation Center where we had a small kiln for ceramics classes. One of the buildings at the former Grove School looked perfect for an Arts Center. It had one large room with big windows and a fireplace and a number of smaller rooms that could be used for various art classes. The views to the outside were of open fields and woods, perfect for creative thinking. Problem was that the building had been neglected. It needed a new heating system, a new roof, and the raccoons had taken over the second floor. Nonetheless, it was a building and possible new space for programs. We eventually did take over the building and after a lot of renovation has created one of the finest ceramic studios in the Midwest.
A few more stories on how our awesome parks came about: In the 80s Lake Forest was seeing a great deal of expansion of new homes, and we were concerned that soon there would be very few large tracks of land for future parks. A community park was intended for active recreation and should ideally be 30-40 acres. The neighborhood park's need was satisfied when Elawa Farm became available. When we examined the former gentleman’s farm and all of the buildings, I became excited again. I visualized the entire facility becoming our Wildlife Discovery Center. The former farm turned into a wonderful facility for our residents. The Wildlife Discovery Center was able to move into part of one building and set up exhibits of wildlife on the property. And we were able to build a small neighborhood park to satisfy that need.
The second and biggest challenge was for a new community park. There were only three options which were all located on Route 60 (Townline Road). A site was selected which was across from the entrance of Lake Forest Academy. The property was owned by the Stuart family and zoned for commercial office buildings. After some negotiations, the land was purchased and developed as our second community park.
Along the way, I was given the responsibility of parks, recreation, and forestry. Most significant was a new responsibility to manage the Deerpath Golf Course, the lakefront, and all of our parks. In my opinion, the beach had always been underutilized so we developed a tremendous sailing program. Through the generosity of our residents, twenty sailboats were donated which led to sailing classes and a nationally recognized racing team.
The Friends of Lake Forest Parks & Recreation Foundation (the "Friends") was established to promote excellence in our parks and recreation system by helping build and improve beautiful parks, organize and host community activities and manage and execute philanthropic gifts relating to the parks and public spaces in Lake Forest.
Prior to the Friends Foundation, the Parks and Rec had put in over a million dollars into the golf course by using their surplus funds. We simply asked the golfers what they wanted to be improved. Major drainage improvements and improved sand traps were high on the list of golfers desired improvements. But there never seemed to be enough funding for the improvements that we desired and marketing the value of our services was difficult. So, I struck on the idea of forming a foundation that could not only generate new revenue but also help promote awareness of our services. I was completely new to the process of forming a foundation, but I filled out the paperwork for the state of Illinois, sent it in and We were approved! The City Manager at the time asked me what I planned to do with the new foundation. I replied that I had no idea! But we ran the golf course and I did know how to run a golf tournament. So, we held our first “major event” in the fall of 2001. They say timing is everything. We scheduled the first golf tournament for the week after 9/11. For those of you who can remember, our nation and the world were in an uproar. Of course, we canceled the tournament, but an interesting thing happened. Every one of the golfers who had signed up for the tournament told us to keep their fee and consider it a donation to the foundation. The following year we held the first actual tournament and now have held 21 consecutive tournaments generating over half a million dollars for park and recreation improvements. It has become known as “The Fred Jackson Not Yet Memorial Golf Tournament”.
Awareness of programs and services was another one of our goals. An opportunity arose when the local symphony decided not to run its annual 4th of July Concert. I asked the City Manager to give us a chance to develop a major community program. The very popular Fireworks and Festival was born. It has been intended to be a fundraiser and an opportunity to spread the word about the wonderful programs of Parks and Recreation.
Like all communities, Lake Forest has faced its tragedies. When young Steven Malin Jr. died in a tragic accident the family requested our help in developing something to memorialize Stevie Jr. Stevie was an excellent little baseball player and loved the sport. Led by his mom and dad and a lot of friends, we helped with the construction of the Steve Malin Baseball Diamond at Everett Park. It was an emotional time and a true labor of love. The result has been a really classic baseball diamond. Most important to me were the friendships that I developed with the Malin family and the hope that this project was in a small way part of the healing for the family. Many gifts of trees and benches have also been donated by residents in memory of other residents to Deerpath Park.
The foundation continues to grow and now completely plans and sponsors the annual Tree Lighting Event in Market Square and a summer Music Concert in addition to the golf tournament and July 4th Festival. It accomplished the major objectives we outlined twenty-five years prior. For me, it’s been a way to continue to be connected and meet a truly great group of new residents.
Some of the other Friends Foundations accomplishments include:
After 48 years of part-time and full-time service to the Lake Forest Parks and Recreation system, I decided to retire. Initially, I thought I would have difficulty adjusting to retirement, but I found new challenges and explored new ventures while still being connected to the community. Outside of my work schedule, I had been involved in the city by helping start the Lake Forest High Booster Club, serving on the Chamber of Commerce Board, serving on the Woodlands Academy and Indiana University Executive Development boards, becoming the founding president of the LF-LB Morning Rotary Club, and continuing to serve on the Rotary Foundation, Friends of Lake Forest Parks and Recreation, and Lake Forest History Center boards. It has truly been an honor!
Today, three people, Sally, Joe, and Rob, all started like I did and have risen to be the leaders of the department. I’m very proud of them. In 2004 we were encouraged to apply for a National Parks and Recreation Gold Medal Award. Each year one Park and Recreation Department is recognized as the best in the nation. I’ve never had “plaque fever”, but the staff and my wife insisted that we apply. We were chosen as one of the finalists but did not receive the award. My wife insisted that we try again the following year since it would be an honor to the staff and community. We did apply, and we did receive the award. When I accepted the award in San Antonio, Texas, I truly felt it belonged to a long list of staff members, board members, and the former Mayors and City Councils.
I have always said it has been the development of the people I have worked with. I learned a long time ago to hire people who were smarter than me and had diversified interests. I also enjoyed hiring people who grew up in Lake Forest and had an appreciation for the values & interests of our residents. It’s not bricks and mortar, park improvements, or program development that has had a lasting impact on me. It’s the people, that I’ve worked with and for that have made a difference in my life. It’s the real joy of watching a preschooler explore new adventures, young people gain self-confidence, a senior citizen regain dignity, or watch staff members grow with new responsibilities. That has fulfilled my life.
Thank you Fred for taking me down memory lane with you and sharing your life lessons, recalling childhood memories, and more than anything all of the years of hard work and continued time you put into this community. To think you basically worked for the Lake Forest Parks and Rec from the time you were a child, to becoming the director and retiring almost 50 years later is a true lifetime accomplishment. On behalf of our community and all the kids and families who still enjoy all the programs every day and all the events throughout the years, THANK YOU!!!