Being in charge of city parks may seem like a sunshiny job dedicated to mowing lawns, planting flowers and caring for sports fields.
But during his 37 years with Oak Harbor’s Parks Department, Hank Nydam has also dealt with controversies, storms, crime and an endless stream of concerns and complaints from citizens.
“They still manage to surprise me after all these years,” he said.
Just the other day he received a report of toxic plants growing at a dog park — which turned out to be true — and complaints about kids throwing starfish at each other in Windjammer Park. The latter concern, he said, wasn’t within his purview.
Nydam, who is known for his perpetual tan and resistance to aging, is retiring as parks director this month.
Sandra Place, the centralized purchasing and contract coordinator in Public Works, has organized a special, pandemic-appropriate retirement parade for Nydam from 10 a.m. until noon on Friday, which is his last day.
Residents and staff alike are invited to say goodbye to Nydam, who will be giving out cupcakes, by driving a parade loop around the Public Works building on the north end of town.
Place said his “calm and steady” presence, his institutional knowledge and his dedication to the community will be missed.
Nydam moved to Oak Harbor with his family when he was about 8 years old. When he was 16, he worked with his father in his landscaping business that did work for the city. They planted the bristlecone pines that are still growing on the shoreline off Pioneer Way today. His job was to water the trees.
“I was nicknamed ‘waterboy’ that summer,” he said.
Nydam later became the first city employee to be hired directly into the city’s parks department. Previously, Public Works employees had to start off on the garbage truck before they could work their way up.
The number of parks and the complexity of the job have increased over the years. Recent highlights include the reconstruction of Windjammer, the city’s giant waterfront park, and the ribbon-cutting for the reopening of the volunteer-built Bailey’s Playground.
Following the discovery of Native American remains, the department has to check with the city’s archaeologist before doing any earth-disturbing activities in the waterfront area, including installing sprinkler heads.
Nydam has been caught up in controversies over the year, which often involved the removal of trees but included a surprising range of issues.
One summer, for example, a vandal was blowing up porcelain toilets in park restrooms, which compelled him to tell a Whidbey News-Times reporter that he was worried the vandal might be injured by flying shards of sharp porcelain.
The next day, he explained with a laugh, he received a complaint from a resident who called him “a bleeding heart liberal” for his concern about the mischief-maker.
Nydam said the most stressful task he ever accomplished was building the children’s playground at Fort Nugent Park, which required about 500 volunteers to work during a brief period when employees from the company would be on site.
The problem was that few of the would-be volunteers were responding to his calls. In the end, he found creative ways to get the job done.
Place said Nydam’s relationship with and support of volunteers has been key to his success. During his tenure, for example, he’s worked with two or three Eagle Scouts a year on service projects, which benefited both the Eagle Scouts and the community.
The projects have included construction of bridges, the installation of a bocce ball court, work on trails and the reconstruction of a merry-go-round.
The city is in the process of finding a replacement for Nydam, who oversees a department of seven full-time employees, plus seasonal workers. His advice to his replacement, he said, is to keep volunteers happy and not to be stressed over unfinished business.
“It’s never ending,” he said. “All the work never gets done.”