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Inducted October 1991
"There is no reason why every center should not hum with activity every day and every night - no reason short of your capacity to bring about such a result."
Few executives have done more to promote effi cient administration of municipal recreation than George Hjelte. The son of Swedish immigrants, Hjelte grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. Majoring in economics and physical education, he attended the University of California, Berkeley. While in college he was an outstanding athlete, gaining selection as All Pacifi c Coast Conference and All American in 1917 for basketball. Upon graduation, he entered offi cer training at the Presidio in San Francisco and later was commissioned a second lieutenant. He served with the allied forces in Europe during World War I and earned the Belgium War Cross for bravery. He was discharged in England with the rank of major where he stayed abroad for a short period and studied at Cambridge University. Returning to California in 1919, he continued his graduate work at Berkeley. During these graduate years, he served as a graduate teaching assistant in physical education.
Prior to the war, Hjelte held a part-time position as a high school athletic coach and served full-time as a director of boys’ work. Upon his graduation in 1919 he was named assistant state supervisor of physical education in the California school system. Two years later he was also appointed superintendent of recreation in Berkeley. Recreation became his primary interest; however, after five years at Berkeley in the combined position, Hjelte was appointed superintendent of recreation in Los Angeles in 1926. He worked continuously in this city, except for a three-year term in a similar position in Westchester County, NY, while serving as recreation officer for the Joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation during World War II in 1942. The tremendous expansion of Los Angeles’ recreation facilities, and programs are a testimonial to his leadership and administrative ability.
The people of Los Angeles demonstrated their appreciation of Hjelte’s committed work in recreation by their repeated support of tax referenda. During the depression, in 1937, the recreation tax was increased two cents for each $100 of assessment. It was the only one of 30 proposed amendments to receive a unanimous vote from the city council. This financial support was largely due to the active backing of organizations such as the Parent-Teacher Associations and the Woman’s Clubs.
Prior to most executives, Hjelte understood the importance of keeping accurate reports as a means of checking the effectiveness of departmental operations. He urged his staff to keep precise program records. This information was used to evaluate such factors as program participation, safety, and distances people travel to reach the recreation centers. Hjelte realized these statistics helped gain program support by proving that a dollar’s worth of service was being rendered for each dollar invested. The preparation and administration of budgets and methods of financial record keeping were subjects of special interest to him, and he shared his ideas through the preparation of material distributed by the National Recreation Association. His book, The Administration of Public Recreation, published in 1940, was one of the first texts to focus on the subject and proved a valuable guide to recreation authorities in establishing sound administrative procedures. A completely revised edition, entitled Public Administration of Park and Recreation Services, appeared in 1963.
Among the unusual facility developments made possible through a 1947 bond issue were a prize-winning mountain camp for girls, a workshop for the development of experimental equipment, a drama center, and Travel Town, an area in which many famous railroad locomotives were given a home. Hjelte’s standing and authority were further enhanced when in 1947 the park and recreation sections were consolidated into the Recreation and Parks Department. Hjelte was named its general manager. Again, in 1957 a $39,500,000 bond was issued for the acquisition, construction, and improvement of the city’s park and recreation system. This bond made it possible for the expansion of playgrounds, regional and community parks, a new zoo, swimming pools, golf courses, and maintenance facilities.
Presidents Conference on fitness of American Youth. Held in Annapolis. From left: Joseph Prendergast, NRA; Ted Banks, The Athletic Institute; Mr. Nixon; George Hjelte, Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks; George Sargisson, Recreation Promotion & Services, Wilmington, DE.
Few if any recreation executives have rendered more generous service to the movement through participation in committee projects. When he retired in 1962 he had served on governmental committees under every President from Herbert Hoover to John F. Kennedy. His cooperation with the National Recreation Association was demonstrated repeatedly by his willingness to accept committee assignments. When the Association established the National Advisory Council composed of the chairmen of its district and special advisory committees, Hjelte was chosen to head it. While in Westchester County he served as an instructor of recreation administration at the National Recreation School. As an active charter member of the American Recreation Society, he was elected its second president.
Hjelte received many honors in recognition of his distinguished public service. Perhaps none were more significant than that bestowed upon him by the National Recreation Association, which in 1962 elected him a member of their Board of Directors. When he retired in 1962, the City of Los Angeles appointed Hjelte as a consultant in the development of their modern zoo. Through his early use of statistics, budgets, and program evaluations, Hjelte is credited as one of the early leaders in the development of planning standards for the park and recreation field. His executive insight beyond doubt advanced the aptitude of the profession.
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.
- Butler, G.D. (1965). Pioneers in public recreation. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing Company.
- Ibrahim, H. (1989). Pioneers in leisure and recreation. Reston, VA: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance.