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‘She radiates warmth’: Howard County recreation and parks leader remembered for mentorship, big personality

Employees in the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks office could always hear Laura Wetherald coming.

When Wetherald approached, her colleagues were energized by her morning greetings and smile.

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“People are drawn to her because of her loud voice and big personality. She radiates warmth,” said Nicola Morgal, superintendent of the county’s Recreational Licensed Child Care and Community Services.

Wetherald, a 34-year employee of the Department of Recreation and Parks, died Feb. 19 at the age of 65 from complications of COVID-19.

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Wetherald served as the department’s bureau chief of recreation from 1998 until her passing.

She was responsible for programming in the department, which meant overseeing thousands of programs, said Raul Delerme, director of the Department of Recreation and Parks. Wetherald managed 70 full-time employees as well as hundreds of part-time and contingent staff and contractors.

Wetherald was known as an advocate for individuals with disabilities who made the therapeutic recreation program what it is today, according to Delerme.

“She felt passionately about all of her programs, but there was one she felt most passionate about, therapeutic recreation,” he said.

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Over the course of the 30 years that Delerme worked alongside Wetherald, he said he watched an evolution of a person and a colleague.

“She grew with the department; she made programs known to a lot of people,” Delerme said. “It’s amazing what she did over that time for the citizens of Howard County.”

Morgal was 23 when Wetherald took her under her wing, becoming a mentor and eventually a close friend.

“She convinces people that they can do anything they want,” Morgal said. “I wouldn’t be a superintendent today if it weren’t for Laura. She put you in these positions where you could shine, meet people and grow. She did that for every person she met, she guided so many young professionals like myself.

Morgal attributed the long tenures in the department to Wetherald’s dedication, passion and motivation for the work.

“She was very good at figuring out what people’s strengths were, showing them and letting them grow,” Morgal said. “I don’t know if she knows how many people she did that for.”

Wetherald did the same for Julija Sajauskas, a recreation supervisor with the department.

“She’s really swayed a lot of my path; she’s watched a lot of us grow up,” said Sajauskas, who has been with the department for 15 years.

Sajauskas said Wetherald’s leadership was instantly recognizable, a skill many young employees, like Sajauskas, looked up to and ultimately wanted to emulate.

“She was always looking ahead. That was the fun part of being mentored by Laura — she could see the next step ahead of you,” she said.

In the past few years as Wetherald became Morgal’s direct supervisor, their friendship deepened. Morgal said that consistent interaction allowed for a more personal relationship to develop and for her to see the generosity and thoughtfulness of Wetherald up close.

“Those extra touches that everybody wants to do but nobody remembers to do, she always did them,” Morgal said. ”People send flowers, she sends flowers in the shape of a birthday cake. It’s a level of thoughtfulness a lot of people wished they had, but it’s either in you or it isn’t, and she definitely had that.”

Sajauskas said there is no way to quantify the impact Wetherald had on the recreation, health and wellness industries all across the country because of the numerous programs and trainings Wetherald led.

“As hard as it’s going to carry on, her voice is going to be in my head guiding me along the way,” Morgal said. “She gave us that passion, that dedication. Now the responsibility is on us to carry that and I know we will 100% make that happen.”

In addition to her Howard County duties, Wetherald was the president of the Maryland Recreation and Parks Association and was a member of the Learning Education Resource Network’s Recreation Council and the National Recreation and Parks Associations’s CAPRA Commission.

The family held a private memorial ceremony.

Wetherald is survived by her husband, Timothy Wetherald; mother, Lois Thompson; and two daughters, Cori Wetherald and Hannah Masi.

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