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Joseph Prendergast

1904 - 1992

Inducted October 1999

 "One of the great values of the National Recreation Association is its bringing together in a single organization both professional recreation leaders and citizens interested in the development of the recreation movement."
~Jospeh Prendergast

A lawyer and social welfare administrator, Joseph Prendergast replaced Howard Brancher as executive director of the National Recreation Association (NRA). He served from 1950 through the merger that created the National Recreation and Park Association.

A native of Chicago, Prendergast attended Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and graduated from Princeton in 1927. He is the only student in the history of the university to be elected president of his class each of his four undergraduate years. He was co-founder of the National Student Federation of America, the fi rst student organization ever formed, and was president of the Cap and Gown Club.

Prendergast was a star half-back (Five Yard Prendergast) on the 1925 and 1926 Princeton football teams, where he made second team All-American. After graduating from Princeton, he studied law at Balliol College, Oxford University on a scholarship.

In 1935 he was named Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern district of New York, later holding top jobs in the Department of Justice in Washington. Enlisting in the U.S. Army as a private in 1942, he rose to the rank of major and was wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans near the Rhine, escaped, recovered, and received numerous combat decorations.

During his recuperation period in a military hospital, he decided to focus his career in social service. Following the war, he received a Master’s of Science degree from Columbia University’s School of Social Work, specializing in social action and community organization. Always interested in youth sports and those underserved, he worked after the war in social welfare until his appointment to executive director of the National Recreation Association.

(Top) NRA headquarters building, (middle) NRA library, (below) Map of regional offices.
Play for America, 1979


ARS/NRA officials meet in New York in January 24, 1962, to discuss how the combined strength of both organizations could be used most effectively for the good of the national recreation movement and the interest of the people it serves. From left: Joseph Prendergast, Executive Director, National Recreation Association; James H. Evans, Chairman of the Board, National Recreation Association; William Frederickson Jr., President, American Recreation Society; and Ray Butler, Executive Director of the ARS.
American Recreation Journal, February 1962

Prendergast was successful in strengthening NRA’s financial base and in expanding the Association’s traditional services, such as the magazine, annual conference, field services, and publications. In addition, he established an international recreation service (the forerunner to the World Leisure and Recreation Association) and a new consulting service in recreation for the ill and handicapped.

On the 50th Anniversary of the NRA, Prendergast was instrumental in purchasing the Whitney Museum of American Art at 8 West 8th St. in New York City as the new headquarters for the National Recreation Association.

Prendergast’s professional involvements were extensive. President Eisenhower appointed him to the National Citizen’s Advisory Committee on Fitness of American Youth in 1957. He was the first chairman of the National Advisory Council to Keep America Beautiful, Inc., and Vicechairman of the Citizens’ Committee of the National Advisory Council to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. He was a member of the National Advisory Committee to the 1961 White House Conference on Aging and served on the board of directors of the Police Athletic League of New York City. Among his international involvements were membership in the United States Olympic Committee (1966-1967) and the Executive Foreign Relations Committee of the Amateur Athletic Union of America (1964-1967).

Prendergast was a major force in promoting the concept of citizen and professional cooperation. He believed that parks and recreation was strengthened through the unity of these two major elements, that with citizen input and support, tempered with professional understanding and technique, the public’s park and recreation interests would be best met.

In 1955 Springfield College, MA awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Law to Prendergast for his service to the national recreation movement. In 1964 Prendergast was instrumental in the creation of the National Recreation Foundation, an independent grant-making non-profit corporation. His role in the creation of the National Recreation Park and Association and the leadership he gave that organization in its formative years are testaments to his leadership and commitment.

Prendergast believed in the importance of preserving historical artifacts and buildings. He assumed responsibility as executive director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States in 1967 and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1973. At the time of his death he resided at Oak Hill Farm in Aldie, VA, in a house designed by Thomas Jefferson and occupied by James Monroe when he wrote the Monroe Doctrine.

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.

  • American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration. (1983). Legends of the American Park and Recreation Association. Downloaded on May 10, 2008 from http://www.aapra.org/ legends.html
  • Knapp, R. and Hartsoe, C. (1979). Play for America. Ashburn, VA: National Recreation and Park Association.
  • Material from Daniel J. Link. Princeton University Archivist.
  • National Recreation Association (February, 1950). Joseph Prendergast new executive director, Recreation. 511.

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