Janet Kendall is quiet. So quiet is she, it’s easy to forget she’s there.
Or, like most Tulsans, to not even know she exists. And that’s just not right.
Especially not now, as Kendall, River Parks Authority’s administrative manager, gets ready to slip out the door of her office and into semi-retirement. Tulsans who love to walk and run and bicycle along the River Parks trail system need to know about Janet Kendall. Same for the hikers and cyclists that frequent Turkey Mountain.
She has been that important to the organization. The second employee hired at River Parks, Kendall came to work July 17, 1974 — two days after the authority’s first executive director, Jackie Bubenik, started.
She was 23 and had just moved back to her hometown from Norman, where she’d been working as a secretary in the city attorney’s office. She’s not sure how she knew there was a job opening for a secretary at River Parks — or if she even did know — but with her experience in city government in Norman, she decided to put her application in at City Hall in Tulsa.
She got the job.
“The idea that I would stay someplace this long, I’m sure, never crossed my mind back then,” Kendall said, laughing.
Who could blame her? River Parks Authority had been established only months earlier, and trustees were still scouring the country for a firm to develop a concept plan for the organization. Completion of the first phase of the pedestrian bridge near 29th Street and Riverside Drive would not happen for another year, and Zink Dam would not be finished for another decade.
“Having grown up here, the river was not considered a very favorable part of the community,” said Kendall, 66. “And (with) the refineries and so forth, it’s a rather industrialized area; and, of course, until 1962 or 63, whenever Keystone Dam was built, there were some really significant floods that affected the Brookside area and down Riverside Drive.
“So 1974 wasn’t all that long after Keystone was finished, so then it became feasible to think about putting things down there that would no longer go under water.”
With the arrival of River Parks Authority, that’s exactly what began to happen.
The first River Parks Fourth of July fireworks show was in 1976, and at about the same time River Parks constructed a concession stand, bathroom and skate rental shop — Boston Avenue Street Skates — at 19th Street and Riverside Drive. By the mid-1980s, Zink Dam and River West Festival were up and running and the trails were beginning to be paved.
“I think by the early 1980s it was really clear that the park was going to be a really popular place and that the community was really seeing the potential down there and embracing it,” Kendall said.
River Parks had hired an events director by then, and Kendall had begun handling the books. She’s been doing it ever since.
“I am a detail person, so doing the budgets and the audit piece and those things is something I’ve always been comfortable with,” Kendall said.
More importantly, Kendall’s bosses — there have been only two executive directors in her time — and the authority trustees have been comfortable with her work. River Parks’ first-year operating budget was $38,000. Today it’s about $1.7 million.
“She has always worked closely with our auditors; we have had clear audits throughout,” said River Parks Executive Director Matt Meyer. “Her reputation is impeccable.”
Kendall’s even been able to keep the peace with park’s two major sources of operational funding, Tulsa County and the city of Tulsa. Mike Kier, the city’s longtime finance director, made a point of showing up at Kendall’s recent farewell party.
“What I love most about my job is working with people like Janet,” Kier said. “If Janet ever calls and she needs help or wants to discuss something, absolutely, I look forward to talking with her.”
Those days are about over, however. Kendall’s retirement takes effect Dec. 1. She will be back to work part-time in January.
Ironically, one of the things she plans to do with her extra free time is to spend some of it walking the River Parks trails and Turkey Mountain. After all, for the last 42 years, she’s been too busy keeping the park growing to explore it all.
Yet she’s loved every minute of it.
“There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t enjoyed coming to work, and it is … always changing, always something new, something going on,” Kendall said. “And most of the new things going on have been positive things.”
That sounds about right. When Kendall joined River Parks, there were no trails on either bank of the Arkansas River between 11th and 21st streets, and just a trickle of a gravel trail on the east side of the river from 21st to 56th streets. Nor did the park include any land on Turkey Mountain. That didn’t happen until 1978, when the authority purchased 147 acres.
Today, River Parks comprises 26 miles of paved trails and more than 300 acres of Turkey Mountain. Those figures do not include the $350 million A Gathering Place for Tulsa park along Riverside Drive, which has been gifted to River Parks Authority.
And to think Kendall had no idea what she was getting into. That’s certainly not the case anymore. As she prepares to leave her full-time job at River Parks, the soft-spoken, self-effacing force behind organization’s success says she’s reminded of it every day.
“Just to be able to enjoy driving down Riverside Drive and seeing everything that is there and seeing all of the people out there using it and the community’s love for the park let’s you feel like what you’re contributing, from an employee’s standpoint, has value,” Kendall said.