When the Park District of Franklin Park hired Joe Modrich out of college in 1974, much of the current landscaping and infrastructure – the park, sports fields and indoor facilities – were already in place.
But as Modrich rose through the ranks to run the ice arena, left after 16 years for park jobs in other municipalities, then returned in 2000 as director of parks and recreation, the resident of Franklin Park never stopped finding things in the District’s 17 parks that it couldn’t change.
Now that Modrich is retiring and Dan LoCascio, his trusted assistant, succeeds him on May 1, residents of the Park District of Franklin Park can take advantage of Modrich’s initiatives to improve facilities in the district.
His staff handed out a long list of accomplishments during Modrich’s tenure. The Park District has invested over $23 million for Park District renovations/acquisitions and facility upgrades, while securing $12 million in grants for capital projects.
North Park has been redesigned. Along with the other 16 parks in the district, it has also been renovated. Girls/women changing rooms have been installed. The Ice Arena’s original refrigeration system has been replaced along with other upgrades. The community center and pool on Pacific have been renovated.
Staff members say they are particularly proud of the child-led play, started in 2005. Involving the age range from toddlers to teenagers, youngsters play games or sports, often setting their own rules in the spirit of child-led play. The children make the decisions themselves, as Modrich described it. The adults’ responsibility is to play with the children’s decisions.
“The 22 years have passed very quickly,” said Modrich. “It went faster than (his previous term of 16 years). Time becomes useless if you love what you want to do.
“We average $1 million a year in capital improvements, which is a lot for a small park district. None of these were the result of referendums. We are now a debt-free park district. We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of capital projects. The staff experienced many disruptions and handled the situation well.
Modrich has certainly become a role model for LoCascio, who is extending his own longtime job at the Park District. He started in 2003 as an intern, then was hired as a program and installation manager. LoCascio was promoted to Superintendent of Recreation in 2018.
“It’s important to go out there (in the community),” he said. “Whenever we were doing events, Joe was giving speeches at planning or board meetings, and we were learning things. He was still there and that’s how you behave.
The Park District must have changed over time. Title IX, mandating equality for women’s sports, was a brand new concept when Modrich was first hired 48 years ago. Baseball and softball were the kings of recreational activities.
Perhaps the most significant evolution in the way parks staff did their business was the diversification of Franklin Park itself during this half-century. Once an identifiable Italian-American community supplemented by residents of Eastern European descent, the village is now home to a large Hispanic population and many Central and Eastern European immigrants.
Modrich, of Serbian and Croatian descent, welcomed the changes.
“The demographics have changed, and with this recess,” he said. “The demographics have made the city a much more interesting place to live with diversity. In East Leyden, 54 different languages are spoken at home. With that, different sports come into play.”
Football has exploded over the decades. Originally an all-American sport, basketball is now all the rage internationally – thanks in part to Michael Jordan – and is played year-round instead of confined indoors in the fall and winter. Participation in volleyball has also proliferated. Girls and boys play hockey.
Thanks to Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe, tennis was hot in Modrich’s early days. Then the ancient distinguished sport declined. “Now it’s coming back,” he said. Table tennis is also growing in popularity, but “don’t call it ping-pong,” Modrich added.
In order to serve the myriad ethnic groups, a number of bilingual employees were hired from among the Park District’s 22 full-time employees. Fluency in Spanish and Polish is a staff asset.
After a generation at the helm of the district, Modrich did not take his own decision to retire lightly.
“It’s a complicated thing to do and to do well,” he said. “In August, I gave leave. For me, it was a matter of timing. The idea that we had an internal candidate was good. I watched Dan all through his 18 years. I knew he was ready.
“Dan has incredible contacts and relationships with the community. He was born and raised here. He has a strength to lean on.
LoCascio will pursue his own style and insisted that “it helps to have institutional knowledge”.
“You bring the staff together and you dialogue,” he said. “We have a team of veterans. I’m not the person with all the answers. We have a comfort level where if you don’t agree with something, you don’t just agree. You can challenge things.
“Joe is a lot more serious, I’m a bit more ‘jokey’. You have to balance that without being too playful.
Those staff will co-star with Modrich in what he said will be a retirement ceremony scheduled for June 3.
“It’s more important to the community than to me personally,” he said. “We will celebrate the team’s accomplishments. It was never about just one person.