NORMAN — Norman Parks and Recreation Crew Chief Jerry Keeler has been working for the city since 1971. He oversees one of two crews that maintain over 50 city parks and other properties including mowing and other maintenance.
For Keeler, a job at the city meant more stability and better benefits for himself and his family.
“I was working at a filling station on Lindsey,” he said. “I was fixing to get married and the city offered insurance and benefits. It was a step up. A steady job and benefits meant a lot back then.”
Keeler was hired on to Parks and Rec and he’s still there.
“At that time, it also included road and channel division and forestry,” he said.
Mowing drainage and maintaining the roadside was a big part of the job in those days. The departments were split up in the 1980s Keeler said, and for a time, he went with roads.
“In ‘97 I came back over to parks,” he said. “At the most, we had 10 or 12 parks back then.”
Those were mostly the main parks — Reaves, Andrews, Griffin and Lions.
“Brookhaven addition was out there but there was no park,” Keeler said.
Growth in the park system closely followed growth in the city and neighborhood parks began cropping up as developers dedicated land as part of the city’s green space requirements.
Another memorable marker for Keeler was the Kid Space at Reaves Park.
“We had a lot of volunteers come out and help, and we had a lot of tools and equipment donated to get that done,” he said.
Norman parks have evolved with the times. In addition to neighborhood parks, the city now has three or four frisbee golf courses, and two splash pads have replaced the wading pools of previous decades. In 1971 the fire station at Lions Park became the Firehouse Art Center.
Recent years have brought new concerns, Keeler said.
City crews aren’t as large as they need to be in order to accomplish the level of park maintenance Keeler would like to see.
“I have 10 people under me and the other crew chief has 11 people under him,” Keeler said.
In addition to mowing, there’s irrigation and playground maintenance to see to.
“It’s a lot of ground for 10 people,” he said. “Nobody was terminated. When they quit, the positions were not refilled.”
He hopes more staff will be coming online soon. Parks and Rec currently cares for 275,000 square feet of wood chips in enclosed playgrounds, just to give an idea of the number of playground projects throughout the city. Wood composts out and must be replaced.
In addition to routine maintenance, the crews respond to problems when notified by Norman residents.
“When we get a complaint, we try to respond as quickly as we can,” he said.
Six of the city parks have restrooms, an important amenity that must be maintained.
“Norman used to be really well known for its parks,” Keeler said.
People came from out of town to bring their family to parks in Norman.
“We take pride in that,” Keeler said.
Keeler said he’s very proud of his crew members. Without their hard work and effort.
“We have a bunch of highly qualified, hard working people,” Keeler said. “Without them, we would not get this done.”
Drought, heat and ice storms have created challenges for park maintenance in recent years.
“We’ve lost maples, pine trees ... it’s been pretty hard on the shrubs and grass,” he said.
Keeler said if it weren’t for the hardworking people on his crew, he would not have been around for 30 years.
“In the ‘70s I had offers to go with the oil boom but I said, ‘no.’”
He has no regrets and said the city employment has been a good job.
“I raised three kids on it,” he said. “I love what I do.