Ebeling receives highest honor from state parks and rec association
Elks Lodge was packed full of friends and colleagues on Thursday night in celebration of one man, James “Corky” Ebeling. The mood of the room could be summarized in one tune: “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”
On Jan. 14, at the Owatonna Director of Parks, Recreation and Government buildings Ebeling received the Clifton E. French Distinguished Service Award, which is the highest professional award given by the Minnesota Recreation and Parks Association (MRPA.)
Ebeling has been a member of the organization since 1979, and served as a board member from 2004 to 2010 and president in 2009.
Ebeling is calling the honor the “pinnacle” of his career.
The award honors lifetime achievement and dedication. It requires 20 plus years of professional service in the field.
He was nominated by Recreation Superintendent and current president of MRPA Mary Jo Knudson for his “leadership and dedication to the Parks and Recreation department.”
“I nominated him because, well, it was a no brainer. It is very well deserved,” said Knudson. “Anyone in Park and Recreation Department would say that he is the mainstay of the department.”
The Clifton E. French Distinguished Service Award calls for a minimum four years of college education, but Ebeling shattered that rule with his nearly 40 years of experience. Ebeling is the first individual to receive the award without a college education.
He was first hired on in the Park and Recreation Department in Sept. 1977 as a laborer. Ebeling was hired by Leo Rudolph, who also received the Clifton E. French Distinguished Service Award in 1993.
“You see, Leo Rudolph took a chance and hired me at a very young age and immediately instilled in me the importance of being connected and involved in your local community and your profession,” Ebeling told the crowd gathered for MRPA annual meeting and award ceremony. “I owe and thank Leo so much.”
In 1980, he moved up into a management position because he coached a softball team. “Coaching kind of related to managing people and that was my wheelhouse—managing people, motivating people, and working with people,” he said.
Ebeling’s new position at that time was parks director, a brand new position to Parks and Recreation at that time.
Ebeling was parks director through Nov. 2012, when Jeff McCay retired to Director of Parks, Recreation and Government buildings. “This position was a goal of mine since I became parks director,” he said.
“That’s how I got to move up the ladder, which was difficult because I don’t have a college education, and most of these positions call for that,” he said in summary of his career.
Since he has been in the park and recreation department for nearly four decades, he finds it difficult to choose his top accomplishments.
He is proud to have worked with Rudolph and McKay to build a proper shop system for Parks and Recreation that is now combined with the Street Department.
“When I was hired, we had a little four-stall garage that we operated out of. Inside there, we had our lunch table, welding table, our mechanic’s shop, our wood working and everything in there with no hot water or bathroom,” he recalled about the conditions of the Parks and Recreation Department shop back in 1977. “The infrastructure of the parks system, building it from almost nothing to where it is today, was a huge task over time.”
Another accomplishment that Ebeling acknowledged was the expansion of the park system itself. He thanks “our forefathers for securing that land 160 plus years ago.”
“As time moved on, people secured land for a trail system, so that is a real highlight,” he said. “At one time we were the only city that owned the land on both sides of the river from one end of the city limits to the other and in that exists today.”
Expansion of the trail system is a project Ebeling is continuing to work on today.
The biggest accomplishment for Ebeling was selecting the parks and recreation team. “Being here this long, I can say that I’ve been involved in the hiring of every single employee that works here today,” he said proudly. “They’re a great team, work great together. They’re all dedicated. I’m just so proud of who they are.”
In the acceptance of his award, Corky mentioned three men that deeply influenced his career: his boss in Parks and Recreation, the late Leo Rudolph, elementary school principal and Steele County Free Fair secretary, the late Elmer Reseland, and retired Rochester Parks Division Director Dave McDonald.
Ebeling is grateful to Leo for all that he taught him as a boss and mentor. “He was a master of park and recreation,” he laughed.
“Elmer had a sign in his office that said ‘Our Motto: It’s got to be 50 percent fun!’ I have always tried to live by those words,” Ebeling said in his acceptance speech. “That always stuck and still hangs there today.”
“Elmer and Corky had a lot of fun together working and accomplished a lot for the fair,” said Alice Reseland. “Corky is very dedicated and hard working. He is an asset to this community as a whole, not just to park and rec.”
Ebeling’s mentor, Dave McDonald, was also present at the social. He was emotionally moved upon speaking about Ebeling. Through their connection in Southern Minnesota Parks and Recreation Association, the two connected.
“I have a great deal of admiration for what Corky has done,” said McDonald. “Most people in this profession have advanced degrees. Corky started out at the bottom as a laborer and worked his way to the top.”
“He’s a five star guy,” commented McDonald. “It’s been a pleasure to call him my friend.”
The Elks Lodge was full of individuals that have been touched by Ebeling or his work in one way or another. He said that it was an honor not only to receive the award but to have so much support from the community.
“The award: It’s the pinnacle of my career,” he said. “Being recognized by your colleagues and peers, there is no greater honor than to receive that.”