Richard Soisson, whose name has been synonymous with recreation and parks in Carroll County for three decades, is retiring, after building much good will with state and county officials and thousands of volunteers.
Soisson has overseen construction totaling millions of dollars in county parks and recreational projects. He has worked with volunteers to build programs and persistently, but gently, pushed officials for funds that would enhance the quality of life for county residents.
He has helped build one of the few public firearms ranges in Maryland and convert an aging movie theater into a lively Arts Council headquarters. Along the way, he also endured flak about a fake alligator, chased fowl from a city park and curbed a population of gnawing beavers at the county's most popular woodland area.
"Throughout everything, he has kept his sense of humor and his ability to see the brighter side of things," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "He has what it takes to get along with people, especially with the rec councils and the sports teams. And he has started all kinds of new projects and programs. He will be missed by a lot of people all across the county."
Soisson is leaving nearly $4 million in future parks projects in midstream, he said. The commissioners named Jeff Degitz, a staffer Soisson has worked with for 15 years, to succeed him.
"I have all the confidence that Jeff will be a solid director," Soisson said. "I am leaving the department in good hands."
Carole Hammen, county director of human resources, said finding a replacement for Soisson was a difficult challenge that involved interviewing 52 candidates.
"You can almost always find a rec and parks director willing to come from another county, but how do you replace the Carroll County part?" she said. "Richard is Carroll County recreation with wonderful institutional memory."
Soisson joined the county in 1976 as manager of Piney Run Park in Sykesville, an 800-acre recreational area with woods, trails and a lake that quickly became an angler's delight.
"We didn't have many facilities, and there was not much money," he said. "We had to use volunteers. We could not afford a staff."
He had earned a degree in business, but quickly found he preferred recreation to the corporate world. But the business background helped.
"When I came, recreation and parks were not a high priority," he said. "The county built Piney Run as a reservoir and then decided recreation would work there. It is still the major park in Carroll County."
Five years later, at his urging, the county built Piney Run Nature Center, an investment in environmental education that has provided countless hours of programs, everything from trail hikes to pontoon rides to art classes using park materials.
"I really give Carroll County credit for being way ahead as far as environmental education goes," Soisson said.
More parks and other nature centers soon followed.
"The county was smart back then and set aside land, which was cheaper and more available, for three reservoirs," he said. "It is the only reason we have land today for parks. That and the fact that we have been fortunate in having people willing to sell land at reduced prices to keep it open space as opposed to development."
By 1984, with the county population swelling, Soisson became bureau chief of parks. He immediately began a career-long quest for more land.
"We are always playing catch-up with population increases," he said. "Our job is to get the facilities needed. With three new parks in the works, we are getting close to meeting the demand."
In 2006, the county expects to break ground on Krimgold Park in Woodbine, Leister Park in Hampstead and a trail system at Gillis Falls, near Mount Airy. South Carroll Senior Center will be under construction, with the addition of a gymnasium - a good blend for seniors and youth that will be used every day, he said.
"At this point, for me, it is time for other things," he said. "I will still help wherever I can as a private citizen and will certainly volunteer. Maybe I will finally be able to enjoy all the parks I have helped build."
His staff of about 50 employees is giving a farewell party for their boss, who, they say, "has gone fishing." Soisson is taking reminders of his many travels with him. He cannot part with images he shot of the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Great Wall of China.
Those travels will continue and lengthen, now that he does not have to report back to work, he said. There are also photography and pottery classes on the horizon, he said.
Soisson has this advice for Degitz: "Listen to your volunteers. Learn what they need and want and try to develop that for them. Also, look for new and different opportunities to provide recreation for citizens. It will enhance their quality of life."