“We were going to make the world a better place, through recreation,” says Connie Edmonston, retiring Fayetteville director of Parks and Recreation, reflecting on the plan she and her husband, Craig, had while in college. “That was our goal.”
There’s little doubt she succeeded. She was asked to compile a list of milestones during her more than three-decade tenure in the Parks and Recreation department. “These were not projects created totally by me – it takes a city to create an amazing parks system in which to live, work and play,” she wrote at the top of the list. Successful initiatives include the purchases or donations of major parks including Finger, Gulley (as well as the Gulley Park 10-acre expansion), Mount Sequoyah Woods, Kessler Mountain Regional, Centennial Parks and the Brooks Hummel Nature Preserve. More than 1,700 acres of parks have been added to the city since 1982, or an increase from 14 to 55 parks. Edmonston was one of the forces behind the Razorback Greenway, and she was a member of the first Trails Committee that helped create the first adopted trails plan for Fayetteville. She negotiated with Iams, a major dog food brand, for a donation to help build the first Fayetteville dog park. She also launched the first Parks Planning Division, which, she says, “designs plans for new and renovated parks in-house, as well as manages the Park Land Dedication process and funds.” She brought innovative, modern features to the park system like the Grinders Skate Park and Disc Golf Courses at Walker Park North and Lake Fayetteville, respectively. She acknowledged the need for youth and adult activities that were alternatives to sports by starting the youth dance program, the clogging program, the aerobic dance program and the children’s theater. Before she started it in 1983, the city didn’t have a park volunteer program. She helped out working parents by creating the after-school program at the Fayetteville Youth Center and summer day camps. She promoted swimming safety by instituting a mother and tot swimming program.
Even for a span of 35 years, it’s a lot. And those are just the highlights.
“She was so passionate,” says David Wright, director of Parks and Recreation for Bentonville. He met Edmonston as a sophomore in college when he coached her daughter’s basketball team as part of a volunteer position he held. Later, he worked in her department as the recreation program coordinator for 10 years. “It wasn’t just a job — it was the purpose of the job. By providing these facilities for people to use, she was really impacting people’s quality of life. She knew the big picture — she wasn’t building a playground, she was building places for kids to be able to grow physically, mentally. It was a place for families to go and strengthen the family unit. It was a place where people could meet new friends, congregate in the neighborhood. She understood what was really going on.”
“[She] wants to ensure the park system is providing maximum benefits to the people of Fayetteville,” says Ted Jack, Fayetteville’s Park Planning superintendent. “This is important for a lot of reasons as parks help with keeping kids heading in positive directions, help people to live active lifestyles that are good for mental and physical health, provide environmental benefits, and generally increase the quality of life in cities.”
For Edmonston, celebrating the outdoors was a trait she was born with — or, perhaps, one she was born into. She was raised in Coldwater, Kan., in the southwestern part of the state. Ranching and farming were in her father’s blood, had been part of his family’s life for generations, and his daughter inherited that love.
“My father had three daughters, and we worked on the ranch,” she says. “I rode a lot of horses. I rodeoed and did 4-H — a bunch of stuff. Cutting horses and roping, I trained barrel horses on the sideline and pole bended.”
Edmonston was so enamored of horses that, when it came time to go to college, she couldn’t bear to leave hers behind. She was riding her ten-speed bike out on a gravel road on the outskirts of Manhattan, Kan., home of Kansas State University, when she noticed what she thought would be a beautiful home for her beloved palomino, Diamond.
“[The owner] was a chiropractor in town,” she remembers. “He had a nice white fence and nice green grass. So I stopped there and said, ‘Hey, I have a horse. I would like to see if I could rent your two, maybe three, acres for my horse,’ and he let me.” Once arranged, Edmonston would throw her boots in a backpack, hop on her 10-speed and bike six miles out of town to spend time with Diamond.
That’s commitment — both to the horse and to spending time outdoors, a regular part of her existence by that point. Her older sister was, she says, more “home ec-y” than she was and didn’t enjoy the ranch as much as Edmonston did. Her younger sister was nine years her junior, so that left Edmonston to do the bulk of the work with her father.
“In the summertime, Dad would get us up about 5 a.m., and we’d go ride the pastures, make certain the fences were up and the cattle were doing good,” she says. “And that there was water for them. I used to get out of school to do spring roundup to help my dad — the guys always did it, so I started doing it. And I kept doing it. As long as my dad was living, I went home for spring roundup.”
Being her dad’s girl Friday meant the two formed a tight bond.
“We were very close,” she says. “On a day-to-day basis, I was his tagalong. Unless he was out working in the field, on the tractor.”
It wasn’t all work, either: Her parents supported her interests and always made sure she had the resources she needed — like when her father purchased powerful outdoor lighting that was being sold after the town’s softball field was reclaimed.
“He made me an arena so I could practice barrel racing and pole bending at nighttime,” she says. “So we had the only lit arena in our area. People would come up and borrow it from time to time, and it was pretty fun. I could go out on a date and then come in at 10 p.m. and go outside and work my horse out.”
Speaking of dating: Edmonston says she was in high school when she met Craig Edmonston, the boy who was destined to be her husband.
“He lived in a town named Protection, which was about 15 miles away from my hometown. We were rivals — the Protection Panthers against the Coldwater Eagles,” she says, laughing. “I was at a 4-H show, and I saw him over there riding. He was a city boy. Craig always says that he lived a little over a block from downtown, a little over a block from out of town. His parents owned the Chevrolet dealership, which I believe was the first Chevrolet dealership in Kansas. We went to a dance after the rodeo, and he asked me to dance with him. He started writing me letters, and then we started dating a little bit.”
For his part, Craig — who has worked in recreation with the University of Arkansas for over three decades and has an impressive list of credits of his own — remembers meeting Edmonston for the first time even earlier, when they were in fifth grade, at the county fair.
“She was participating in the short horse showmanship category,” he remembers. “She was the only female competing against a group of about 12 boys. And she won the class. Back then, a girl beating a boy was a pretty big deal. I happened to be down there watching that, and, a couple hours later, my friends and I were walking downtown in my hometown, and I saw her riding a bicycle towards us. I told my best friend, ‘That sure is a pretty girl coming towards me.”
Craig remembers the precise distance between their garages: 18.2 miles. For two young people who didn’t drive, it might as well have been 1,000 miles. The two wrote letters to each other and occasionally saw each other at community events like rodeos. They ended up at different colleges after high school graduation — until Edmonston’s junior year, when Craig joined her at Kansas State. They were married that summer.
She and Craig shared many things in common: a love of the outdoors, a passion for recreation and a commitment to public service. That, says Craig, was instilled by the community they grew up in.
“One of the things about growing up in a small, rural community is that you learn to rely on each other. And when the city needed something, you didn’t wait for the government to get it worked out. Everybody just got together. If you needed a football field, you built it — or a baseball field or rodeo arena. She learned community service at a very young age, and that carried through college, and into her work in Fayetteville. You know, in addition to being parks director, she also taught Sunday school class, she was a Brownie [scout] leader, she helped coach youth sports, she was officer of the Booster Club for junior high and high school, and she was active in church.”
After finishing their undergraduate studies, the couple moved on to the University of Kansas in Lawrence to earn their master’s degrees in recreation after which Craig was quickly hired by the University of Arkansas as the Intramural Recreational Sports director.
“He was one of the youngest, if not the youngest, intramural director in the country, so I was just proud to be there with him,” she says.
Edmonston started teaching physical education in the school system and liked it so much she went back to school to get her second undergraduate degree — this time in K-12 physical and health education. She and Craig added daughter Megan and son Dustin to their family. Edmonston got her foot in the door of the parks system in Northwest Arkansas by teaching aerobic dance classes, and, later, worked as the program director for the Springdale Parks and Recreation Department. When an administrative assistant position opened up in Fayetteville’s Parks and Recreation Department, she jumped at it. She was only in the position for around a year before the title was changed to assistant director, a position she held until 1994, when she left city work for a position as the school-based health education coordinator for Washington Regional Medical Center.
It was a nice change of pace, but when longtime Fayetteville Parks and Rec Director Dale Clark retired, the city came knocking at her door.
“I said, ‘No, I’m really happy with what I’m doing now,’” she remembers. “Then the Public Works director at the time called me back and said, ‘Can we at least sit down and talk about it?’ So I got excited about being back in my field — all the possibilities and where we could take Fayetteville.”
The job was huge, and Edmonston says her skill in prioritizing was immensely useful right off the bat. Slowly but surely, she ticked her priorities off of her list — things like new parks, youth programming, a volunteer corps, the Razorback Greenway.
“I always knew of cattle trails on a ranch to get from one side to another,” she says. “People trails were just as good. Dale assigned me to serve on the first Trails Committee that our city had, so I’ve been there for a long time. I was huge on getting the trail around Lake Fayetteville. That was a huge positive thing I could see for our city.”
She’s always careful to shine the light of her accomplishments on others rather than taking it all for herself. Fayetteville’s capacity and commitment to parks and green spaces, she says, is a gift from those that came before her.
“In 1981, our city established a Park Land Dedication Ordinance,” she says. “When a [new] development came in, they were putting stress on our parks — adding more people to our park system. So they would either dedicate land within their development or give money in lieu so that we could develop a park close by that neighborhood to serve those people. Our city forefathers saw the need for parks — the city of Fayetteville has always been progressive in this area. They had the first Park Land Dedication Ordinance within the state of Arkansas. And then in 1994, when I was leaving, we were just starting the campaign for the hotel/motel/restaurant tax that would help parks — ‘A penny for parks’ is what we called it. Very progressive for the city of Fayetteville to have both an HMR tax in addition to a parkland dedication.”
Despite her heavy work schedule, daughter Megan says neither of her parents ever slacked when it came to family time.
“This is something that I admire about my parents: You can work hard, but family is always first. I cannot remember a game for my brother or myself that they were not in the stands. That sometimes meant they put in late hours the day before or even worked when our games ended, but they were going to be there to cheer us on. I never once heard her complain. Even with the hectic schedules, she always found time for family and friends and always wanted to just have fun. She even managed to find time to volunteer and be a part of our church community.”
And then there’s the fact that Edmonston, according to Wright, has a knack for inspiring those who worked under and around her.
“She was always telling you the good that you’re doing in the community, and she was always talking about the impact that the individual employees were making on people’s lives,” he says. “She cared about the people she worked with on a grander level than just 8 to 5, Monday through Friday. I was one of the few employees who wasn’t born and raised here — my family’s in a different part of the state of Arkansas and there were holidays that I just couldn’t make it five hours to go and see my family. … She would invite non-family members to her house for holidays and treat you like family. I went to her house on Thanksgiving. There were times that I was sick, and she would knock on my door with chicken noodle soup. And it wasn’t just me. I said earlier, she picked me as a sophomore in college to mentor, to invest in, but she did that for so many people that she worked with — and she taught them how to be leaders.”
So how does someone who has dedicated so many of her years, so many of her hours, to one cause, retire from that career?
Well, it might take a little practice.
“We were about two days into this trip, and she turned to me and said, ‘I’m bored,’” says Craig, speaking from the road to Idaho, where the couple are vacationing to celebrate Edmonston’s retirement. “[On previous trips,] she always worked. As soon as we hit the car, she was on her laptop working. We went through a whole state two years ago, and she didn’t even realize it.”
“It’s hard to hang it up, but I have a lot of other things I want to do in the next chapter of my life — more time with my friends and family,” says Edmonston. “My mother and sister and their families live in Kansas. My husband and I love to travel. We love to bike ride. I just decided it’s time to start thinking about that. I’ve been so passionate and involved in parks, in every aspect — evenings, weekends. I’m ready to pass it on and see how we’re going to keep developing our city.
“The things that have happened in 35 years — yeah, there’s been a lot. But behind all of that, there are great people that I got to work with. I learned a lot from my staff. And, hopefully, they learned from me, too, and we were a team together. And not only them, but the Boards, the City Council, the city administration, the mayors that I’ve worked with through the years — that’s how we get things done in Fayetteville. We all had to work together to give us a good Parks and Recreation Department.”
“She’s a really selfless leader,” says Wright. “It was never about Connie, it was about the department. And she has set that department up for long-term success. Everything that she has done has been about Fayetteville Parks and Recreation. And not just what they do today or in the last 25 years — it’s as much about the next 25 years. One of the last things they’ve done is the parks master plan — so not only do they have the funding sources, now they have a master plan that’s all in place to give them the road map for what they should be doing from a capital basis over the next 10 years. The legacy that she leaves doesn’t end today, because it’s the first Monday she’s not at work — the legacy that she leaves extends for decades and decades. And it’s because she’s literally set that department up for long-term success. And although that’s not the most visible thing that people will see, it may be the most beneficial in the long term.”
Connie Edmonston the former Fayetteville Parks and Recreation director retired July 9 after 35 years. She is photographed in Wilson park July 8, 2021 in Fayetteville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Spencer Tirey)
Through Others’ Eyes
“Connie leaves behind a park system that has, with the resources it was allocated, done a great job of growing with the city. The park system has grown in size and number of parks, and it has also grown in programs and offerings. Some of the offerings such as Gulley Concert Series have been long-term successes. Other programs are much newer, such as some of the outdoor recreation programs. Since moving here, I have heard many stories about people’s experience growing up spending time in the parks and participating in programs. Collectively these experiences have helped create the social capital that helps make Fayetteville a great place to live.” — Ted Jack
“It was amazing growing up involved in sports and being outdoors. There is so much I have learned from both of them. Playing sports was more than just learning a skill and how to be competitive. It taught me that hard work and dedication always leads to results, it teaches about being a team player and picking up the slack for others when it is not their day, and commitment. These are all life lessons that have been ingrained in me for my career after sports. It is so important to make sure these activities are available to our youth, and I know my Mom did a great job to ensure the youth/families of Fayetteville had these opportunities.” — Megan Edmonston
“The thing that Connie did so well was was public engagement. What I was able to learn by watching her for 10 years was how to really get out in front of the community, and have those public conversations in a very productive manner that would give you the best possible product. We’re in the field that we don’t see financial return — we’re not like a bank, or a small retail shop or a small business. Our return on investment is oftentimes determined by the number of people that come through the doors at a community center, the number of people that are playing on a playground, the number of people that go swimming in a swim season — that’s how we often gauge our success. What I learned from her is that if you really do go to the public and you ask them what they want in their facility, if you really give it to them, if you listen to what the public tells you, then they will use it, and your product will be successful.” — David Wright