Wheaton Park District stalwart Raymond Morrill dies


Raymond W. Morrill devoted more than a half-century to the Wheaton Park District, for many years working as superintendent of recreation and special facilities and then serving as an elected board member for 16 years.

“Ray was so totally dedicated to improving the quality of life for the Wheaton community,” said Brook McDonald, president and CEO of the Naperville-based Conservation Foundation and a former colleague. “He believed that leisure time was not an ‘add-on,’ but an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.”

Morrill, 74, died of congestive heart failure Aug. 27 at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, said his wife of 50 years, Patricia. He was a longtime Wheaton resident.

Born in Chicago, Morrill moved as a child with his family to Brookfield, where his father ran the village’s recreation department. He graduated from Riverside Brookfield High School in 1967, and initially sought to be a veterinarian, his wife said.

Morrill instead decided to pursue a career in parks and recreation. After graduating from Western Illinois University in 1971, he worked briefly for the Naperville Park District.

In 1972, the Wheaton Park District hired Morrill to be a recreation supervisor. He soon was promoted to superintendent of recreation.

During Morrill’s tenure at the Park District, Wheaton’s population rose from 31,138 in 1970 to more than 55,000 in 2000. That meant a significant increase in recreation programs, along with the construction of facilities in which to hold those programs.

Morrill oversaw numerous new recreation programs held at facilities such as Seven Gables Park, the land for which the district acquired in June 1975 after voters approved a referendum question seeking $1.2 million to buy the park’s first 57 acres from the family of the late First National Bank of Chicago executive Horace Wetmore.

The district also acquired the 27-hole Arrowhead Golf Club in 1981, and opened a brand-new swimming pool on Wheaton’s south side in 1989, along with an adjoining community center that opened its doors the following year.

At the Wheaton Park District, Morrill worked alongside childhood friend Ken Kutska, the Park District’s longtime superintendent of parks and planning. In an interview, Kutska joked that the pair were the district’s staff’s “yin and yang,” and that the duo would at times battle over budget dollars for their respective departments. However, Kutska also called Morrill forward-thinking in terms of his attention to providing recreation programs for disadvantaged youth.

“He was way ahead of his time in terms of diversity and when it came to what was fair and equitable,” Kutska said. “He was able to offer programs to those in town who were less fortunate.”

Later Park District expansion projects included expanding Cosley Zoo, a variety of new ballfields and other facilities, improving Northside Park and making the sprawling Lincoln Marsh parkland more accessible. Morrill oversaw new programs at each new facility.

“Ray was a consummate professional who was insightful and thoughtful and he knew basically every facet of Park District operations,” said former Wheaton Park District Commissioner Mike Gresk, who later was Wheaton’s mayor. “He was part of the first generation of professionally trained, educated Park District administrators who brought a level of professionalism to a Park District that before that was casual at best.”

In 1987, Morrill hired McDonald as the district’s first manager of interpretation and natural resources.

“Our belief is that the key to our environmental future is the education of our youth. Nature interpretation classes include regular public programs such as night hikes, campfires, youth and family nature walks, eco-camps and living history demonstrations,” Morrill told the Tribune in 1991.

Former Park District President Dave Blankenship said Morrill was “very proud of the district’s recreation department — not only of the programs but of the people who were in that department and running those particular programs.”

“He always seemed to have a smile on his face and was enjoying what he was doing,” Blankenship said.

Wheaton Park District Executive Director Michael Benard said Morrill “lived his life and led this agency with care for others as a foundation from which he made decisions, from which he decided to take on new challenges or provide new services or form a new partnership.”

“Ray’s care for people and his passion for what he accomplished to improve lives through Park District services and facilities was palpable, and when he spoke and when he took action you knew it,” Benard said. “People trusted Ray. Ray never operated behind the scenes and was constantly public facing.”

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Morrill retired from the Park District in June 2006, but returned to its staff in an unpaid role as interim executive director later that year. In April 2007, Morrill won the first of five consecutive terms serving on the district’s board of commissioners. He was serving on the board at the time of his death.

“Ray was a friend to many — he was a good leader and a good person, and he was always willing to help anyone and always was a positive force on the board,” said Commissioner Terry Mee, a former Wheaton police commander and a longtime friend. ” He leaves a big void in a lot of different ways.”

Morrill also previously served on the board of Wheaton’s Center for History and co-chaired the city’s Sesquicentennial Commission.

Morrill also is survived by a daughter, Jeneen Hiller; a brother, Tom; a sister, Donna Mecklenburg; and two grandchildren.

Services were held.

Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.

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