The man who’s helped shape the city’s parks for 25 years is calling it a career.
Who puts the “park” in Winter Park? For 25 years it’s been Parks and Recreation Director John Holland.
But if you ask the humble city staffer who really shapes Winter Park’s peaceful green spaces, you’ll get a different answer.
Holland soon will enter his retirement from his post as head of parks and recreation following his last day Sept. 15.
His retirement ends a 25-year career in Winter Park, where he’s helped shape what residents see today. In that time, Holland has had his hands in many projects: overseeing the renovations of the Winter Park Golf Course; the creation of a Central Park Master Plan; the revitalization of Mead Garden in tandem with the Friends of Mead Garden; the construction of a new Winter Park Community Center; and a deal with Orange County Public Schools for a new track and football field at Showalter Field.
“What a wonderful job to have,” Holland said. “Getting paid to be in charge of parks and recreation — that’s unbelievable. I probably would have paid them to do it.”
Holland grew up in Stamford, Texas, a little town of 5,000 people with a landscape of red clay, cacti and Mesquite trees.
“Being from west Texas, there wasn’t a whole lot of landscaping,” Holland said with a chuckle. “I thought adding more was a good idea.”
The outdoors have been part of Holland’s life since his youth. He remembers the trips he took to Taos, New Mexico, at age 15 with his best friend, Jerry.
“His family had a cabin up in Taos,” Holland said. “We’d go up there catching fish and climbing mountains. We’d do things that parents wouldn’t even consider now. My friend’s dad was a pastor. He would take Jerry and (me) up into the mountains and dump us off and say, ‘I’ll meet y’all down here at the end of the week.’ We were teenagers up in the woods fishing, catching our food and walking a few miles every day. It was unbelievable.”
Holland said he is grateful to have had the opportunity to help others make those memories in Winter Park.
“Everybody has a memory growing up of parks and rec – they’re favorite park or what they used to do in the park or going to the park,” he said. “It’s part of growing up. You can’t grow up without parks.”
Holland followed in the footsteps of his brother, Jim, who went on to become the director of parks and recreation in Aspen, Colorado. Holland first came to Winter Park as an intern from Texas Tech University, where he earned his bachelor’s degrees in park administration and landscape architecture.
He spent three summers as an intern in Winter Park from 1971 to 1973. He worked as a grounds director at Abilene Christian College after his graduation before being offered a job in Winter Park in 1975 as the city horticulturist.
He worked his way up to the title of director of parks, forestry and cemeteries before leaving in 1980. He went to work for a national chemical corporation as a grounds specialist before spending almost 10 years working at Weller Pools, where he designed swimming areas for Wet ‘n Wild, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress hotel.
He returned to parks and recreation with a director job in Lake Mary from 1990 to 2000. Holland finally came back to Winter Park in 2000.
“The unique thing about Winter Park is the involvement of the residents,” Holland said. “There’s not a town around that I’m aware of that has as much resident involvement as Winter Park.
“Winter Park is Winter Park because of that involvement,” he said. “It’s not because of the politicians; it’s not because of the residents. It’s the residents who are so closely watching over everything going on here.”
Holland also expressed great gratitude toward city staff, the Friends of Mead Garden and especially City Manager Randy Knight.
For Knight, the feeling is mutual.
“John’s been an invaluable member of our team for the last 20 years,” Knight said. “Everybody loved John. He could walk into a room and talk with anybody.”