John Karel in Tower Grove Park
December 15, 2014
FORMER LES AMIS BOARD MEMBER & STE. GENEVIEVE PRESERVATIONIST: JOHN KAREL
Director who brought new activity to historic Tower Grove Park is retiring
St. Louis, MO (December 15, 2014) – By Joe Holleman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The beauty of Tower Grove Park is that it doesn't change, at least not dramatically.
That's fine with John Karel, who will retire at year's end as director of one of the nation's most architecturally significant parks.
Karel said he will leave his job the same way he took it 27 years ago: passionately.
"That's better than staying so long that everyone starts thinking they don't need that old guy around anymore," Karel said.
Ruminations on aging aside, Karel, 66, lights up talking about his beloved acreage adjacent to the Missouri Botanical Garden in south St. Louis.
Karel sits straighter, leans forward, his hands come unclasped to underline the points he makes and hold the ideas he shares.
"This park is more remarkable for its continuity than for its changes," Karel said. "It's a refuge, a haven for people that contributes to our civic health."
Karel said that was no more evident than in recent months, when people protesting a fatal police shooting in the Shaw neighborhood clashed with police outside the park.
"I worried about the park, but nothing happened. It remained a place of peace and solitude, a retreat from certain aspects of life," Karel said. "That's what parks are."
Tower Grove Park was created in October 1868, when Henry Shaw gave 289 acres to St. Louis. Aside from Forest Park, it is the city's largest. Karel said Shaw's vision was part of a new philosophy in England which suggested factory workers in newly industrialized cities needed natural green spaces.
"It was a social reform movement, and Shaw was filled with that spirit," Karel said.
While vowing to maintain Shaw's vision when he took over, Karel realized that updates were needed. He has been lauded by community leaders and the media for bringing social activities inside the bucolic boundaries.
Karel said his job has required a touch of juggling, keeping the park enticing to new generations while still preserving an urban space for nature and solitude.
"We have hundreds of events here now," he said, listing numerous festivals, picnics, athletic leagues, a popular farmers market, the Festival of Nations and Food Truck Friday.
Karel grinned and said, "I'm sure Henry Shaw did not envision food trucks."
"But we also don't want to be Six Flags, or even Forest Park," he said. "That's not a criticism of them; that's just not Tower Grove Park."
Born June 30, 1948, in Louisville, Ky., Karel moved to St. Louis when he was 12, after his father became vice president of a finance company in Clayton.
The oldest of eight children, Karel grew up in Warson Woods and became familiar with Tower Grove during his freshman year at St. Louis University High School. After graduating from SLUH in 1966, he went to the University of Missouri and earned a bachelor's in American history and a master's in wildlife management.
"That's when I started working in parks, getting hired by the state. But it was in state parks and focused on nature trails and wilderness areas," said Karel, who is co-author of "Exploring Missouri's Legacy," a book about Missouri state parks and historic sites.
When a change of governors took place in 1985, Karel, by then the state parks director, found himself out of a job. He worked as a consultant before being hired to lead Tower Grove in October 1987.
One of the people backing Karel's hire at Tower Grove was Peter Raven, now president emeritus of the neighboring Missouri Botanical Garden.
"Turns out that with his interest in 19th-century U.S. history, his drive, and his engaging personality, that he was just the right man for the job, and it for him," Raven said in a statement from Bhutan, where he was on a research trip with National Geographic.
"A great success story from any point of view," Raven concluded.
Karel noted that the 1970s and 1980s were not boom years for urban parks, as earlier suburban flight left cities with dwindling revenue and decaying parks.
"But there was a group of us who knew that people would always live in cities, which means they'd always need parks.
"I guess there was a foxhole mentally back then. We were going down with guns blazing," Karel said. "We thought we might lose, but we weren't going to surrender."
Gary Bess, St. Louis parks director, has known Karel since those no-surrender days.
"I've known John forever. He's a details guys and he wants everything to be perfect, and that's exemplified by the way that park looks," Bess said. "He takes pride in his work."
Bess said the two have shared ideas and resources over the years. "When John says he'll do something, you can count on him."
'ONE LARGE WORK OF ART'
Karel said the first years were dedicated to stopping the physical decline of the property, and then finding money to keep the improvements coming.
Under Karel's leadership, four private support groups have been formed and $27 million in capital improvements have been made to restore the park's statues, ponds, trails and fountains. New street lights and 3,500 new trees were planted, and sports and recreation facilities have been renovated.
Along with numerous honors from legislatures, Karel has been lauded by the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, Garden Club of America, Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, Missouri Parks Association, Missouri Wilderness Coalition, Sierra Club and the American Fisheries Society.
With all these improvements under his belt, Karel must have a favorite park place, right?
"I do," he said immediately. "It's whatever part of the park I'm in at the time."
Sensing the pat-answer nature of his response, Karel quickly noted his reaction was just what Shaw wanted. "This park was designed to be one large work of art."
As to the future, Karel said he is following fraternal advice.
"My brother Bob - I'm older, but he's wiser - recommended I don't make any commitments for six months. He said anything that's available when I leave here will still be available in six months."
One of Karel's duties outside of the park is serving as board president of the L-A-D Foundation, which owns 140,000 acres of Missouri forest to foster conservation and responsible forestry.
Kay Drey, whose husband, Leo Drey, created the foundation, said Karel is "a real St. Louis asset. He's just so knowledgeable and hard-working."
Drey went on to describe Karel as a "remarkably bright guy who has made Tower Grove into one of the outstanding pieces of St. Louis. I hope it will always be as beautiful as he's made it."
After 27 years, Karel - who is single and has lived in a house on the park grounds - conceded that his departure "won't be without some pain and withdrawal."
But he is adamant about not looking over the shoulder of whomever is named as his successor.
"I won't hang around or hover. No one got in my way when I took over," Karel said.
That doesn't mean he wants to be forgotten.
"Maybe in a couple of years, someone will say, 'Hey, let's get Karel down here to help us cut a ribbon.'
"That would be fine with me."