#1: Rick Miller of Newton Hill at Elm Park
It's my honor to introduce you to the man directly responsible for my interest/involvement in Worcester parks and the inspiration for my efforts - Rick Miller.
I thought it would be a fitting first stop on our 2018 park tour to bring it home - both literally and figuratively - as Rick is literally my dad and figuratively the 'father' of Worcester's modern parks movement.
To really bring home that family picture, Rick was even referred to as 'the godfather' of Worcester's Park Stewards Program by City Manager Ed Augustus in 2015.
Rick is also known as 'Mr. Newton Hill', or as those of us involved with his home-grown neighborhood group, the Friends of Newton Hill at Elm Park (FNH), call him - 'Mr. President'. No one actually calls him 'Mr. President', but he is, indeed, the president of FNH.
In 2001, Rick started FNH by bringing together local business owners, neighbors, acquaintances, and fellow park users at Gary Rosen's Hot Dog stand in Newton Square. Completely green to community organizing, he had a vision for the 41-acre, Newton Hill section of Elm Park. At the time, Newton Hill was completely overgrown, it's trails were nearly impassable, the space was rife with litter, and it was a well known location for illicit activity. Rick saw the forest through the trees and immediately got to work to make Newton Hill more open, welcoming, and safe.
How he happened upon Newton Hill as both a concept and a space is one of my favorite aspects of his story.
After moving to Worcester in 1997 for his wife's work in Central Mass' information technology sector, Rick began exploring New England's second-largest city with his two young children.
A native of Morrisville, VT - by way of Castleton, VT, Indianapolis, IN, and Fitchburg, MA - Rick has a native appreciation for green space and recreation. He grew up in the Green Mountain State, rafting through lazy river valleys and adventuring along train tracks through the mountainous woods. He went to college for athletic training, eventually obtaining a masters degree.
So after moving to Worcester, it was only natural that Rick take an interest in Worcester's green, wooded space.
It's fair to say that he 'happened upon' Newton Hill.
Rick is really the original 'park tour guide', as he took his two kids - me and my brother - to close to, if not all, of Worcester's parks. In the late 90s - as today - the parks exist as a really inexpensive and convenient place to spend time and entertain children. It was on my first true 'tour' of Worcester parks, that we ventured to Newton Hill, passing through its narrow but trodden paths, fighting back undergrowth to experience the summit, and balancing atop its stone-walled perimeter.
He only realized that the overgrown, wooded parcel of land behind Doherty was part of Elm Park after a close examination of the granite markers stationed in Newton Square and along Pleasant Street. They mark the boundaries of the space officially, as part of 'Elm Park'.
That realization was a spark that started something beautiful. He began researching the park's history, confirming Newton Hill's place in the origins of the Worcester/greater urban park movement of the 19th century. He grew an enormous respect and appreciation for Edward Winslow Lincoln, Worcester's first Parks Commissioner and the advocate largely responsible for the city's purchase of Newton Hill in 1888 and its inclusion as part of Elm Park.
I won't elaborate too much on Edward Winslow Lincoln, because he rightfully deserves not just a park tour post all to his own but a book (maybe I will feature him on a future park tour post, interesting idea), but Rick's discovery of Newton Hill and its publicly intended purposes (via Winslow Lincoln) created the foundation of the development of the Newton Hill that we are lucky enough to experience today.
In 2001, he started having meetings and gauging the community's position of 'the Hill'. He engaged neighbors of the park, his personal neighbors, business owners, as councilor Gary Rosen was and as FNH benefactor Steve Hopkins of Blue Jeans Pizza still is, and public officials. He created a forum for discussion and activism. A tried and true 'homegrown' effort. Fliers, invitations, and original web presence (circa 2001, impressive!) crafted by his computer-savvy wife Carleen on the home computer. A strong and persistent ground game making connections to his local businesses and to the organizations to which his family was privy (May Street Elementary School, Girl Scouts). And most importantly, a sincere and selfless pitch about why Newton Hill matters and what it means to Worcester.
Many of those original 2001 recruits are still actively involved in FNH's operations and play a pivotal role in programming, maintenance, and development. It's striking- to me - to word what FNH does as an 'operation' with 'programming, maintenance, and development' activities but as a volunteer group they (we) do all that and it would be a misrepresentation to describe it as otherwise.
I would be remiss (and my dad would be mad) if I didn't take a short aside to acknowledge some of those original 2001 recruits:
- Luke Robert, Principal of May Street Elementary School and our former neighbor on Havelock Rd. The brains, booking, and emcee behind the Newton Square Summer Concert Series
- Steve Hopkins, owner of Blue Jeans Pizza and my former (and first) employer. FNH's largest benefactor, donating generously (monetarily and in-pizza)
- Kevin McCormack, neighbor to the hill and engineer of Newton Hill's 18-hole disc golf course
- Stacey Hill, Doherty Memorial High School Science teacher, FNH Earth Day Coordinator, and my former AP Bio teacher
- Conor McCormack, son of Kevin McCormack and one of the original Park Stewards Summer workers (stationed at Newton Hill).
Not by any means an all encompassing list. Dozens, truly dozens, of individuals have dedicated their time, energy, and attention to Newton Hill over the past 17 years.
Over those 17 years, FNH has completely revitalized Newton Hill. The trails are wide, passable, and welcoming. New park amenities include an 18-holes of disc golf course, a 12-stations of fitness circuit, two new hiking trails, a redesigned summit with flag pole, granite benches, flower bed and urban orchard. I could go on. All the while, Rick and the cadre of FNH volunteers have maintained the Hill, its trails, and all of the new amenities.
That development - that change - is so inspiring to me. I remember the Hill in the late 90s and I have enormous respect for my dad for creating a 'positive presence' by experiencing the park himself and for going out of his way to create, share, improve and celebrate that experience for others.
Look at what one man can create with two things: a vision and follow through. He really doesn't like the praise, but seriously - the effects of his actions have had a resounding effect on our community. His actions have helped to create that community.
When discussing his involvement and volunteerism on a recent Sunday afternoon, Rick accentuated the true community effort of those involved:
"Where do you find these people, people who chose to live here and make a difference for 17 years? Taxpayers who are willing to roll up their sleeves to make a difference."
Where do you find them? At Newton Hill. On a weekend doing trail work, on a Tuesday night enjoying a free, summer concert, or on any day, just enjoying the park.
I am very lucky to be able to call this man my father. It's my hope that this park tour, this writing, and Park Spirit's greater efforts will be an encouragement to all - to get outside, to enjoy out parks, and to help make our community whatever it is that you want it to be.