McHENRY – One of the first things on Pete Merkel’s to-do list when he became the city of McHenry’s first parks and recreation director was building a swimming pool.
The city was awarded a $200,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Conservation about six months later, and the Knox Park pool opened about a year and a half after that.
From there, the parks and recreation department continued to grow, adding hundreds of acres of land and a variety of athletic and recreational programs for children and adults.
Athletic program coordinator Pattie Lunkenheimer remembers when the department was just three people – Merkel, Lunkenheimer as Merkel’s assistant and Bill Oeffling, who handled parks maintenance – and they started up a youth soccer program, now the McHenry Area Soccer Federation.
“We got all these different teams together, we got parents to volunteer coach, [and] we ordered all the uniforms and everything else,” Lunkenheimer said.
“There was a couple teams where, of course, no parents stepped up to be the coaches, so Pete not only refereed a lot of those games, he actually coached like two of the teams. That way they could have a team.”
But it will be the pool that will showcase Merkel’s legacy.
At a retirement party in honor of Merkel’s 33 years as the city’s parks and recreation director, Mayor Sue Low announced that the pool will be renamed the Pete J. Merkel Aquatic Center.
“When I think about Pete at work, I think about this tenacious person who recognized what our community needed to be well-rounded and offered something for everyone,” Low said.
“He just methodically set out to get all of those things. We have a skate park. We have Fort McHenry. We have a lake to swim in, a pool to swim in, a river to build a beautiful riverwalk on. He has just always been a visionary.”
The City Council hasn’t picked Merkel’s successor yet, and Merkel hasn’t made a recommendation, he said.
He hopes whoever takes the job next continues to keep up with the growth and perhaps build the long-talked-about community center.
“We have had several plans developed and cost estimates prepared and [are] looking at different sites,” Merkel said.
“The challenge has always been to find the money to be able to build such a facility, and I hope in the future, as the community matures and does get built out, that we’re able to build some of the indoor facilities to go along with the great network of open space and parks that we do have.”
Merkel doesn’t plan on completely disappearing from McHenry.
He grew up in McHenry, and his two children and one grandchild all live in the city. He also serves on a number of boards and volunteers, but he plans on making time to camp out in his 26-foot trailer, jokingly referred to as his “retirement home.”