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Charles K. Brightbill

1910 - 1966

Inducted October 1995

 "Altough it is easy to lose sight of it, the recreation and park profession does not have a role except what it can do through its efforts to improve the lot of humanity."
~Charles K. Brightbill

A leader in the recreation and park fi eld from the end of World War II up to the time of his death in 1966, Charles K. Brightbill emerged as one of the leading philosophers and statesmen of his time. From a background that included experience at the local and federal levels of government as well as with a national nonprofi t association, Brightbill culminated his career at the University of Illinois where he developed one of the most respected highereducation programs in the nation.

Brightbill, a native of Reading, PA, graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in commerce and fi nance from Pennsylvania State University. He received a Master’s of Business Administration degree from the University of Pennsylvania. While at Penn State, he was selected to be drum major of Penn State’s famed Marching Blue Band.

He began his recreation career while in college working as a picnic specialist for the Reading Department of Playgrounds and Recreation. His last summer in this job, he conducted picnic programs for 54 organizations, including churches, civic clubs, lodges, and social organizations. His success in this position lead to his appointment to a full-time position of supervisor of special activities for the Reading Department of Recreation.

In 1935, Brightbill accepted a position as head of a new Work Project Administration supported by the Recreation Department in Decatur, IL. Here, he developed the Decatur program into one of the best in the nation for a city of its size. The Decatur program became the subject of a film, “Playtown, U.S.A,” produced by the Athletic Institute.

The reputation Brightbill gained in Decatur led to his appointment as New England District Representative of the National Recreation Association. In this assignment, he was responsible for promoting, organizing, and providing technical assistance to New England communities in the establishment and operation of public and private recreation systems.

During World War II, Brightbill worked for the Federal government in a number of defense-related positions, including service as Associate Director of the Recreation division of the Office of Community War Service. He shared the responsibility for overseeing the operations of more than 3,000 U.S. programs and numerous other war recreation services for civilians.

Following the war, he was appointed director of the newly-created Division of Recreation Services of the Veterans Administration. From February 1947 to February 1949, he was responsible for the planning, development, and supervision of the VA’s growing recreation programs in veteran’s hospitals.

In late 1948, President Harry Truman created the Presidential Committee on Religion and Welfare in the Armed Forces. Brightbill served as the first and only executive secretary of this committee. In this capacity, he was responsible for undertaking studies and appraisals of policies and programs related to the workforce of military personnel. Among the studies he directed were Free Time and the Armed Forces, The Military Chaplaincy, and Community Planning for the Peacetime Serviceman.

When the Presidential Committee went out of existence, an unexpected job opportunity came from the University of Illinois to head their fledging Recreation Department in the College of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. Brightbill, who did not have a doctoral degree, was an attractive candidate because of his national reputation in the recreation field. To recruit Brightbill, the University of Illinois offered him the rank of full professor with immediate tenure. When he accepted, a new course in his career had been determined.

Professor Brightbill adapted readily to the university environment and remarked many times that he wished he had entered university ranks earlier. The University of Illinois position opened the door to the most productive, personally rewarding phase of Brigthbill’s entire career.

The success of his work at the University of Illinois is noted in a resolution passed by the Board of Trustees of the National Recreation and Park Association, which states, in part:

As an educator in this field he had few equals. The department which he headed at the University of Illinois has not only been a pioneer in education for leisure, but has turned out men and women with a deep sense of dedication who will make valuable contributions to this field for years to come. The department is held in high esteem by all those in the field of recreation and parks.

The Challenge of Leisure was one of Brightbill's last publications before his death in 1966.

Through his books, writings, and lectures, he was able to record for this and future generations a greater understanding of the challenge of leisure as well as a profound philosophy for the recreation and park profession. He authored or coauthored nine major books and more than 75 published articles.

Brightbill was a strong proponent of the concept of citizen and professional cooperation in the recreation and park field. He developed the principles used in formulating the merger that brought together citizen and professional groups to form the National Recreation and Park Association.

Brightbill’s strength of character was ever apparent in his struggle with ill health. In January 1963, after his usual noontime swim, Brightbill fell and it was discovered that his spinal column was fractured. Later in that year, it was determined that he had multiple myeloma, an incurable malignancy of the bone marrow.

He chose not to divulge the terminal nature of his illness to individuals other than his family and one or two close associates. Brightbill wanted to function normally and wished to avoid the sympathy of his professional colleagues. He suffered three additional lumbar fractures prior to his death on August 23, 1966.

The period of his terminal illness proved to be one of the most productive periods of his career. During this time, he continued to teach, write, and participate in professional affairs. He retained his keen sense of humor and refused to permit any discussion of his illness.

The uncomplicated and unassuming nature of Charles K. Brightbill is reflected in his personal assessment of himself:

If he asks what I did for immortality. I sired a girl and a boy, wrote a book and planted a tree.


Adapted from: Hartsoe, C, Sanders, D & Bridges, M (eds) (2009), Profiles in Leadership: Robert W. Crawford Recreation and Park Hall of Fame. National Recreation and Park Association and American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration.

  • Brightbill, C. (1963). The challenge of leisure.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Spectrum Books.
  • Hartsoe, C. (1970). “The Contributions of Charles K. Brightbill to the Recreation Movement.” Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Illinois; Champaign.



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