Thirty-five years ago, a Tony Orlando look-alike named Paul Roche was appointed Ridgefield’s third superintendent of recreation. With three employees operating four programs out of a cottage on Market Street, Mr. Roche went on to build a recreation department that is considered a model for other towns.
Today Ridgefield can boast a modern recreation center, 21 playing fields, several new parks, 28 full-time recreation employees, and 280 part-time employees (mostly instructors).
“We have come a long way, but our mission remains the same — to support and serve the community in every way possible,” said Mr. Roche.
Coming to Ridgefield in 1977 after three years as the assistant director of recreation in Old Saybrook, Mr. Roche remembers dedicated recreation staffers back then. “Jack Disher ran our teen center,” he said. “Chick Ciuccoli, who had a field named after him, and Joel Fortin were our maintenance people. Joan MacDonald taught our dance classes, Joe Kovaks was our gymnastics person. And, of course, Justine Butler ran our tennis program.”
After quickly outgrowing the building on Market Street, the department moved to the Yanity Gym, which at the time had no heating system and was in ill repair.
“This is where I spent most of my time writing grants and trying to get money from CETA to build a program that would support an ever-expanding community.”
Never letting anything like lack of facilities stop him, Mr. Roche began to use schools. The department began offering trips, including to New York City.
“I also initiated a fees and charges program, which was a new concept at the time,” he said. “To keep the programs afloat and growing, I had to develop the most cost-effective programs and bring in revenue.”
He said, “While trying to build programs, I was also working on building fields and came up with a plan involving the schools, the town, and various sporting groups. Our scheduling plan for maintenance, field use, cost sharing, and development was a prototype still used by others. This was one of my proudest achievements.”
The Yanity Gym became too small for the many programs now being offered.
“Around 1991, the local YMCA went bankrupt and the town moved us into that facility,” explained Mr. Roche. “We were happy in this new location and had plans to expand, but then in 2002 the town decided to make use of the land off Route 35 and built us an entirely new recreation center. Our 10th anniversary is this year.”
“Paul is amazing,” said Jane Byrnes, the office manager. “He is a visionary. He ‘sees’ buildings, playgrounds and fields and then he makes them happen. His passion is contagious.”
Mr. Roche’s latest visions include a “spray bay” at the Recreation Center, a bike path from the center to hook up to the rail trail to Branchville, and turfing of more fields.
“Paul is forever exciting, always challenging, and embraces any change that will help the community,” said Robin Matthews, assistant recreation director.
She’s another department “old timer”: 23 years.