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Sorry We Missed Lunch, Old Friend

Stan Esping was fiercely proud and protective of the Park District that he’d created from scratch. But especially in the last third of his life, he left a legacy of warmth, positive attitude, and joy.

You’d think, by this point in my life, I’d know better.

It was last Sept. 17 when I went to visit Stan Esping in his apartment at The Holmstad, and when I snapped the informal portrait of him, in his favorite recliner, which appears here.

I didn’t stay awfully long, maybe a half-hour; I was there to interview him briefly about the fact that, as far as anyone knew, he was in consecutive years, and that I was going to do a brief piece for Patch on that fact.

Toward the end of our visit, I asked if I could call him to come have lunch with him. His face instantly brightened, and he said, “Hey, yeah, let’s do that!”—in such a way that it was clear he truly would look forward to it.

The busy weeks of fall came, and then winter—and although the thought came back to me, three or four times a month, that I should take a couple hours at midday and go have a sandwich with Stan ... well, supposedly “important” things get in the way, don’t they?

So much so that you postpone what really are the important things: giving a bit of your time and attention to people who have touched your life.

I repeatedly told myself I’d call him next week or the week after, or early next month for sure—justifying the postponements to myself with the fact that Stan, other than dealing with his failing eyesight, looked so upbeat, so vigorous, so healthy ... for being 94.

And in so doing, I was neglecting the most obvious fact: that when one is 94, it doesn’t take much to knock even a seemingly healthy man down in a hurry. In Stan’s case it was pacemaker issues—and heat Delnor Hospital, about five weeks before what would have been his 95th birthday.

Stan Esping and I had first become friends more than 30 years before, in 1978—a point at which he was in the process of retiring after 25 years as the Geneva Park District’s first executive director (indeed, its first full-time employee, in 1953).

In 1978 I was 21 and working as a summer-intern reporter for The Geneva Republican—covering Park Board meetings on occasion, but more regularly visiting the district’s old office at 1250 South St. to pick up copies of youth-league schedules and results (it being a pre-e-mail and even a pre-fax-machine era).

Stan, age 62 that year, had already become a member of the Park District Board—whether he’d been elected or had been named to fill a vacancy in 1978, I honestly don’t recall.

But in addition to his service on the Park Board, Stan was having to keep his hand in the district’s day-to-day operations in 1978 and ’79—only because Tim Royster, the young man who’d been hired around 1974 and basically groomed to succeed Stan as executive director, had suddenly and unexpectedly bolted for another park-management position elsewhere in the suburban Chicago area.

Starting the next summer, 1979, the reason Royster may have done that became perhaps a bit clearer—to no one more so than Steve Persinger, the energetic 27-year-old whom the Park Board hired that summer as executive director. During Persinger’s first year or two—both during Park Board meetings and presumably during the workweek as well—Stan kept, shall we say, close by over Steve’s shoulder.

During the public board meetings for the remainder of 1979 into ’80, one would frequently hear from Stan, directed toward Persinger: “Well, why are you doing it that way?  What we’ve always done is thus-and-such,” etc.

All of this was certainly understandable—in retrospect, it’s hard to see how Stan really could have operated any other way. After all, it is exactly that which he brought to the table; 25 years of experience of basically creating and running the Geneva Park District from scratch. Stan was justifiably proud of what he had accomplished with Geneva’s parks between 1953 and ’78, and he had, of necessity, been extremely detail-oriented. But it did make Steve Persinger’s first couple of years in his position more difficult than they probably should have had to be.

And it perhaps served as useful notice to other local public bodies that if a retired public administrator is to be considered for the elective board that runs the district in question, at the very least it’s prudent to wait a few years first.

Fast-forward 30 years, of course, and Stan Esping could not have been prouder of Steve Persinger (who retired in his own right in 2009) had the younger man been his own son. His pride in Steve Persinger’s career was one of the primary topics of my final conversation with Stan last September:

“Hasn’t Steve done a hell of a job? Just look at what that Park District has become!” Stan enthused, a broad smile on his face.

Indeed, “a broad smile on his face” is a pretty accurate blanket description of Stan Esping during the final 32 years of his life that he spent in retirement. Frankly, Stan could have given lessons on what retirement should be—in his case, three decades of giving back generously of his time to his community, primarily through his service with the Geneva Rotary Club ... but also, a graciousness and a zest for living that is too often buried beneath deadlines, schedules and responsibilities when one is trying to raise a family and earn a living.

And, now that Stan is gone, I can fully express my appreciation to him for his repeated attempts to help my own late father with a very delicate matter:

My dad in 2003 underwent surgery, at age 77, for a massive colon tumor, which necessitated a colostomy—and the requisite distasteful indignity, for the rest of his life, of having to (my apologies here for the unavoidable graphic description) defecate into a plastic bag attached to his belly, just below the beltline. There’s no way around it, a colostomy is a nasty situation—prone to occasional accidents that can be horrifyingly embarrassing.

My father never became truly accustomed to his condition; he let it become a debilitation. He never played more than 9 holes of golf again, never flew in an airplane again; indeed, he never allowed himself to travel more than 90 minutes or so away from home again, because he didn’t want to deal with “this goddamn bag” anyplace other than his own bathroom.

But it wasn’t for lack of trying from Stan. He and my dad were both members of the local senior men’s lunch club known as the “B.O.Y.S. Club” (for Benevolent Order of Youthful Seniors). And so it was in '03 that Stan confided to him that he’d had a colostomy surgery, too—but not in his 70s; instead, in his early 50s—and that he’d had no choice but to deal with it in conjunction with work travel, business lunches, etc. Several times, Stan worked with Dad, trying to teach him helpful tricks and diet tips of various sorts that would allow him to live a fuller life. He was very helpful—at least to the degree Dad allowed him to be—and I’ll always be thankful to him for that.

But where I’ll always remember Stan Esping best and most fondly, is on beautiful late-spring and summer nights in the mid- and late 1990s, seated comfortably in an old-fashioned strap lawnchair, alongside the ball diamond in the pretty little park (which by then carried his name) on the south edge of the Ridgewood neighborhood, just a few hundred feet from his house.

It was when our own sons were small and playing youth-league baseball, so I was there for their games—and there was Stan, then in his early 80s. The first evening I saw him there, I approached him with a smile and asked if he had a grandson, or perhaps a great-grandson, in the game.

“Nope, I really don’t know anyone here but you,” he replied with a grin.

“I just like to watch little kids play baseball.”

More than any other single Genevan, it was Stan Esping who gave his hometown those ballfields, on which its children could learn and play the summer game for generations to come.

Not a bad legacy at all, old friend.

Mike McCormick March 08, 2011 at 02:38 PM
I never knew Mr. Esping but as a father of boys who play on those fields...thank you sir! Rest in peace.

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