A Career of Orchestrating Open Spaces for Recreation

Jim Patula

By: Justin Waters

A conductor of orchestra normally stands with their back to the audience.  They know every note that each instrument plays, when they’re supposed to play it and how it works in the overall sound of the orchestra.  Their face is rarely seen, but the audience knows that they’re there. They can hear and see all of the movement as a result, but what leads to that point is the hard work and careful planning of the conductor.  To Bolingbrook Park District, that person for the last 30 years has been Jim Patula.

In 1990, Bolingbrook began to see immense growth.  The population grew from 41,000 to over 75,000 in just 18 years.  In that time, Bolingbrook Park District saw exponential growth of its own.  Behind all of it, stands Jim Patula, Superintendent of Parks, Planning & Loss Prevention.  Jim’s first day at the park district was back on January 2, 1989, when there were just 17 parks and 285 acres of open space. 

Since that Monday, everything Bolingbrook Park District is today represents a piece of Jim. Here’s just a small list of things that are familiar to residents that Jim helped build:

  • 32 new parks and 47 new playgrounds
  • Bolingbrook Recreation & Aquatic Complex
  • Pelican Harbor Aquatic Park
  • Hidden Oaks Nature Center
  • Acquisition of 802 acres of open space
  • Remodel of Annerino Community Center

Of those 47 new playgrounds, Rotary Park holds a special place in Jim’s heart.

“We just replaced Rotary Park playground in 2016. That was the second time I designed and  built Rotary Park playground,” said Patula.  “That was the first large playground development the park district had done in many, many, years.”

The Rotary Park playground was built in 1989. This was one of the first major projects that Jim worked on.

At the time, most playgrounds were just iron/pipe work equipment in the lawn or in a sand lot area. Rotary Park raised the bar for parks in Bolingbrook by adding accessibility features for those with disabilities, had safety surfacing and was the largest playground in town.

“That was a very creative design where we built ramps and the surrounding areas had walk ways, vehicular signs for kids with bikes/trikes. We incorporated a lot of different things and that was a big deal for Bolingbrook residents because they’ve never seen anything like that before,” said Patula.

The road to Bolingbrook for Jim began back in 1981 when he graduated from Joliet Junior College with a degree in Landscape Design & Turf Grass Management.  After three years working for a large commercial landscape company and then five years at Berwyn Park District, it was time for him to make his next move. 

“One of the reasons I came here was that I realized that this was going to be an area of tremendous growth and would provide a challenge for me,” he said.

“I just knew there would be a lot of growth so I’d be able to use my creativity to build things, working from a blank canvas.  A lot of this was just working from farm fields. I didn’t realize how much of a challenge it was going to be and I didn’t realize how quickly this village was going to grow,” said Patula.

In the midst of all these changes, Jim has always kept focus on why he is in this position.  It’s always about what the community wants and giving families an opportunity to experience the outdoors and make memories. 

“I enjoy working in public service and serving as a support for all the other departments.  I get a great deal of satisfaction just knowing that what I do has an impact on people’s lives,” said Patula.

Part of that satisfaction comes with grand openings.  That’s when Jim can finally take a step back and appreciate the countless hours of planning, coordinating, safety checks and so on. 

“They’re nerve-wracking, yet gratifying,” said Patula.  “You want everything to be just right. Normally, you finish one project and you’re right on to the next one, but when you do get to sit back and smell the roses, it’s really sweet.”

Throughout his 30 years, Jim has seen and done just about everything he set out to accomplish, and had a few adventures. He’s used helicopters to replace air conditioning units at the Annerino Community Center, found money in a building that was demolished at Hidden Lakes and his team has found a fully built engine in a park.  On top of that, he’s been part of a park district that has passed three successful referendums.

“Everything we do here is as a team and I’ve been thrilled to be part of a successful team,” said Patula. 

Jim is set to retire in May from Bolingbrook Park District.  When he first started, he recalled the amount of kids in the community. Baseball was the sport of choice and there were few shade trees.  Jim, being a self-proclaimed tree-hugger that he is, jumped at the opportunity to plant trees around Central Park.

“At the time we couldn’t afford trees, so I was soliciting vendors and different companies to get tree donations,” said Patula. 

In the first two years, he and his team planted over 200 trees, covering 70 aces.  At the time, it didn’t look like much, but now 30 years later, those trees have matured.

“At some point, those trees are going to be 100 years old and 60 feet tall.  I’m going to be long gone, but I left something behind for generations to come to enjoy. That’s kind of neat. How many people can say that’s what they did for a living? ”

Though his time at Bolingbrook Park District nears the end, Jim leaves the district in a solid state.  He has been mentoring Chris Corbett, the new Projects and Planning Manager for the last few months to prepare him. 

“I’m confident that now is the time and its bittersweet. It took me a long time to come to terms that it’s ok to leave,” said Patula. 

Jim and his wife have been residents of Bolingbrook since 1994.  Jim is an avid golfer and bike rider and will be found riding around the parks and golfing at Boughton Ridge Golf Course. 

From the days of just farm fields, Jim’s orchestrated every aspect of the park district’s growth in Bolingbrook.  He began his concert with just a few clink-y instruments and left with a symphonic orchestra, fully prepared for the baton to be passed and to keep his song loud and strong.