When John Byrd was 6, his family drove up from Prince George’s County in his father’s new 1963 Plymouth Valiant to spend a memorable day at the Enchanted Forest theme park on Route 40.
A dozen years passed before the current head of the recreation and parks department gave Howard County another thought.
It was 1975 and Byrd’s freshman roommate at the University of Maryland, College Park told him he was from Columbia, which was then just 8 years old.
“I said, ‘Where is that?’ ” the Clinton native recalled with a laugh.
After once aspiring to be a forest ranger, Byrd accepted a job as chief of the bureau of parks 26 years ago in the county he once knew little about. Now, he’s retiring after nine years as the department’s head.
With Blandair Regional Park in the third of its eight planned phases, Byrd said the time is right to move on to the next phase of his life. Though his last day in the office is set for June 7, he will take vacation leave through June.
“I’ve had a storybook career and it’s been fun 99% of the time,” said Byrd, who is 62 and earns an annual salary of $165,348.
A private retirement party is planned for June 4 at Belmont Manor, an 18th-century manor house purchased by the county in 2012 and operated as a wedding venue by the recreation and parks department.
As a nationwide search for Byrd’s replacement begins, Raul Delerme — chief of capital projects, park planning and construction — will serve as acting director of the department.
When Byrd became chief of the bureau of parks in 1993, he managed 34 full-time employees and the budget for the entire recreation and parks department fell somewhere between $7 million and $9 million, he said.
Today, Byrd oversees 225 full-time employees, 71 part-time employees and a seasonal workforce that fluctuates between 400 and 800 throughout the year. The budget has climbed to $48 million.
“John’s employees all love him and his department has such energy,” observed Lonnie Robbins, the county’s chief administrative officer. “People want to help him and make things work.”
During Byrd’s tenure as director, Howard County’s population rose from an estimated 287,000 on April 1, 2010, to approximately 323,000 on July 1, 2018. That 12.6% increase was the largest in the state, according to the data released in April by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The number of county parks has increased dramatically since 1993, when Byrd became a bureau chief, from fewer than 55 to the 95 in operation today.
“It was a natural evolution,” Byrd said of the number of parks in Howard. “As the county continued to grow, demand called for it.”
Howard County recreation and parks director Jeff Bourne and deputy director Gary Arthur interviewed Byrd for the chief of the bureau of parks position. Byrd had worked since 1982 for the Montgomery County Department of Parks.
“Jeff and Gary were physically big guys, but I’m not,” Byrd said. “They took me on a tour of the county’s park system on a 95-degree day and put me through my paces for four or five hours. I finally said, ‘If I haven’t impressed you guys by now, I’m not going to.’ ”
Byrd, widely known for his sense of humor, was the right fit, Bourne said.
“John had all the qualities you would look for — temperament, experience and skills,” said Bourne, who retired in 1998 and was succeeded by Arthur.
“After Gary died at age 62 in 2010, John kept things moving forward,” he said. “The department is grossly larger and more complex than when I left, but it has gotten even better at providing services.”
Byrd said he saw to completion such facilities as Roger Carter Community Center in Ellicott City; North Laurel Community Center, where a long-awaited pool is in the design stage; Gary J. Arthur Community Center in Cooksville; and the Robinson Nature Center in Columbia, among other projects.
Synthetic turf was installed at county high schools and parks between 2005 and 2017 on 25 multi-sport fields and two baseball diamonds at a cost of $1.3 million each, Byrd said.
“Some residents complained about spending [taxpayers’] money on rec and parks over the years,” Byrd said, “but once the projects were done, people were generally satisfied.”
Robbins said Byrd’s easygoing nature made him stand out as a team player and problem solver.
“John was always the consummate professional,” he said. “While there have been controversial aspects to projects, I’ve never seen him get mad.”
Dr. Joel Goodman, a Glenelg dentist and immediate past chair of the recreation and parks department’s advisory board, said Byrd continued Arthur’s mantra that “if the public has the will, there’s a way.”
“John continued the culture of always listening to what people were saying,” Goodman said.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said he respects Byrd’s leadership, especially his commitment to ensuring all children have access to parks and facilities.
“John fought for the things that would open up their world, like a diversity of parks and active and passive forms of recreation,” Ball said, praising Byrd’s work to procure Program Open Space funding at the state level.
Howard County, with its 95,000 acres of parkland, is only one of three recreation and parks departments in the state and one of 169 in the country recognized for excellence by the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies.
“Every person who cares about parks in the state knows that Howard County parks are a model for the nation,” Ball said, noting the county has been recognized by CAPRA for 17 consecutive years.
As retirement looms, the lure of the outdoors is strong for Byrd, who spent much of his childhood playing in the woods and wading in streams. Trout and fly fishing, kayaking and hiking are all calling out to him.
As a self-described home improvement junkie, he looks forward to having more time for woodworking projects and possibly dabbling in historic house restoration. He and wife Melinda also plan to travel.
Byrd described the recreation and parks department’s five-year master plan ending in 2022 as “a systemic improvement program for infrastructure.”
But, as he prepares to leave the department, he isn’t focused on listing capital projects he has overseen or are in the pipeline.
“What I’m most proud of is not any brick-and-mortar accomplishment,” Byrd said. “I strived to keep the department on a positive momentum and that resulted in community support.”
Byrd also knows the department will continue to thrive.
“I’ve had a fulfilling career and I leave the department knowing there’s an unbelievable depth of talent here,” he said.
Ball said he ordered the nationwide search because Byrd left big shoes to fill.
“There’s a great deal of opportunity to build upon our excellence and I was willing to cast a wide net,” he said. “But right now, we’re celebrating John and his legacy and that’s exciting.”