Before heading up the Bend Metro Park and Recreation District for more than three decades, Vince Genna dreamed of playing shortstop for a major league baseball team.
But Genna's draft notice arrived in 1942 and was delivered the same day as a contract to play for the New York Yankees, according to his two sons.
While working on a B-24 bomber in Manduria, Italy - where he was stationed from 1942 to 1945 - Genna suffered a shoulder injury that ruined his chances to play in the big leagues.
Baseball's loss was Bend's gain.
Genna, 86, died Saturday, leaving a legacy of public service and an unrivaled dedication to the game of baseball, according to those who knew him best.
He never hesitated to ask for help or call in a favor if it meant a new park or baseball field in the city of Bend.
”He was a hustler,” said Clarence Bells, of Bend, who has been friends with Genna for decades. ”They used to say if you gave Genna $5, he could turn it into $10 by getting volunteers to do the work.”
It was not uncommon for Genna to put in a seven-day workweek, Bells said. His relentless work ethic led city leaders to name Bend's baseball stadium after him in 1972.
And even as his career wound down in the late 1980s, Genna, who suffered from a heart condition, refused to take it easy, said Paul Stell, who has worked at the park district for 22 years.
Stell recalled a workday at the ”ballpark,” as Genna called it.
”We were digging and raking and hoeing, and he is at home plate with this tamper,” Stell said. ”He stops and grabs his heart and we're all thinking 'Oh, no.' He took a couple of nitro pills, sat down for 20 minutes and went back to work.”
”The guy was just indomitable, just the hardiest guy I ever met,” Stell said.
Bringing baseball to Bend
Genna moved to Bend with his wife and two boys in 1954, after a rather unconventional offer from the owner of a local lumber mill, said retired City Manager Art Johnson.
Genna had been coaching Little League and high-school-aged children in Salem, where he racked up an impressive record.
”Leonard Lundgren, who owned one of the mills, wanted good baseball here,” Johnson said.
So he offered to pay Genna's salary out of his own pocket. Genna started as the assistant recreation manager for the city of Bend. He later took over as recreation director, Johnson said, a position paid for by the city.
In the mid- and late 1950s, Genna worked as a volunteer with the Junior Chamber of Commerce, a civic organization that undertook improvement projects around the city of Bend.
He continued to coach baseball, and led a team of high-school-aged kids to the state title in 1958.
Six years later, the city combined its Parks and Recreation departments, and Genna took over as director.
All the while, Genna kept his eye on attractive sites in the city and county, hoping to acquire them for the Park and Recreation Department.
Genna, an outspoken guy whom Johnson described as a ”fiery Italian,” was not shy about asking the city for what he wanted.
When he didn't get it, he sometimes ”crossed swords” with city officials, said Mike Maier, former Deschutes County administrator.
Genna stepped away from his city duties for more than two years in the late 1960s, when he took a position with Mt. Bachelor and a camp for boys.
But the call to service was strong and Genna returned to his duties in 1969.
He continued to push officials to give the Park and Recreation Department more land.
Persistence means more parks
In the early 1970s, Genna decided it was time to get his land.
He had scheduled a meeting with city officials to tell them once and for all which parcels he felt should go to his department, said current Park and Recreation Director Don Horton.
Genna was sitting in the city manager's office waiting for a meeting, Horton said, when he spotted a map.
”He got a green pen and colored in where he thought the parks should be whether they were developed or not,” Horton said.
The city manager never showed up, Horton said.
Genna went to work, and his department ultimately built Skyline, Ponderosa and Riverview parks on some of the green-penned properties.
Around the same time, Genna got the idea that an old fish hatchery at Shevlin Park could be transformed into a beautiful community center.
Johnson described the old hatchery as ”really disreputable,” noting it had a dirt floor with a tree growing in the middle of it.
”I suggested we bulldoze it,” Johnson said.
But Genna pushed his agenda and former mayor Dick Gervais relented, to a degree.
”Dick Gervais said go ahead and fix it up but you won't get any tax money,” Johnson said. ”Vince said 'Hey, I'm not God, I'm just God's little helper.'”
Genna found federal funding to pay for carpenters to work on the project, Johnson said. And when a film crew came to town to shoot the movie ”Rooster Cogburn,” Genna saw an opportunity.
”Vince was not shy and he went to them and said 'Hey, you got some carpenters, right?' and he got the carpenters to go and build the kitchen floor in the center, and it was a real nice facility.”
The center later burned down because of an electrical problem, Johnson said. But the city had insured it and rebuilt what is now Aspen Hall.
In the early 1970s, money was tight and the Parks and Recreation Department felt the squeeze.
City officials wanted to cover the Juniper pool to make it a year-round facility, Johnson said. Genna originally got a grant to build the pool in the 1950s.
But a bond measure failed. And Genna's department needed a more steady funding source.
Genna worked with his department's board members to get a petition drive going, proposing that his department become its own taxing district.
Voters passed the measure in 1974.
”So then the city transferred all the parks over to the park district, and they got a tax base so that they could function, and Vince, of course, was our director,” Johnson said.
Genna also led a push to create a second Rotary Club in the city, said friend and former Mayor Oran Teater.
”In the mid-'80s we built the berm on the north end of town,” Teater said.
Genna also pushed to get the south berm built, so drivers coming in from the north and south are now welcomed with landscaping.
A few years later, Genna started an innovative program using jail inmates as work crews to improve district properties, said Deschutes County District Attorney Mike Dugan.
”Many of these inmates, just because they committed a crime and went to jail, it didn't mean they were bad people with no talent,” Dugan said. ”Vince ended up hiring some of these people. One was a skilled electrician, and he put the electrical system down in the bathrooms in Drake Park.”
Jail crews also completed the First Street Trail along the Deschutes River, Dugan said.
”They did that by hand and, but for Vince stepping forward and taking that on, we would not have been able to establish a good community work service program to help our community,” Dugan said.
All the while, Genna struggled with heart problems, undergoing a quadruple bypass in 1985 and a quintuple bypass in 1987.
But neither one stopped him, Paul Stell said.
”They cracked his chest and he came back after about a month and said 'I'm back!' like 'You didn't get rid of me yet, by golly!'”
Genna continued to head the district until his retirement in 1990.
After Genna left the district, he continued to visit his namesake ballpark on a regular basis.
He served as president of his veteran's group. He kept in touch with the residents in Manduria, who built a museum in honor of the B-24 veterans who treated the townspeople so well, said Genna's son, Michael Genna.
”It was not unknown that these guys were flying missions that ended the war,” Michael Genna, 62, said.
Michael, who lives in Creswell, accompanied his father to Manduria twice, he said. The first time was to visit the museum and the second, in 2002, was for the dedication of a park Genna had a hand in building.
Genna convinced the Italian government to donate the land, Art Johnson said. Then he raised money through his veteran's group for the playground equipment.
At the May 2002 dedication, planes flew over trailing first red, white and green smoke representing the Italian flag, Michael Genna said. Then they flew back over trailing red, white and blue smoke.
More recently, Genna's health began to fail and in August, he reluctantly moved from Bend to live with a sister in Tacoma, Wash.
Last month, he was admitted to a hospital there after suffering a heart attack.
Genna had required constant care and his family said in an earlier interview that they made the difficult decision to move him to a nursing home.
Genna is survived by his two sons, their wives, three grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
”He was a very public guy; he was very public service oriented and that is what he was,” Michael Genna said. ”He always said that his work was his pleasure.”
Born: Jan. 1, 1921, in Auburn, Wash.
Died: April 7 in Renton, Wash.
Education: Attended Willamette University
Family: Two sons; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren
Military Service: Was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his service in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II
Work: Headed Bend's park department for more than 30 years. In 1972, Vince Genna Stadium in Bend was named for him.
Services: A funeral for Vince Genna will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Rita's Church in Tacoma, Wash. He will be buried during a private service at Pilot Butte Cemetery in Bend. A memorial service to celebrate Genna's life and achievements will be held in Bend at a later date. Organizers and family members hope to have the service at his namesake stadium. Memorial contributions can be made to the Vince Genna Memorial Fund through the Bank of the Cascades.