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Robert Garrett

1875 - 1961

Inducted October 1991

 "Typical of the man is the fact that all of his civic activities have been performed without thought of personal aggrandizement, but in response to his own conscience and sense of duty to his fellow man."
~Recreation, February 1951

Born in Baltimore County, MD, Robert Garrett came from a wellto- do family background. His great grandfather and namesake arrived in Baltimore in the early-1800s and founded the family business of Robert Garrett & Sons, Incorporated. Originally a grocery and consignment company working in the western trade, the family business later evolved into the transportation, banking, and hotel industries, best know for the development of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company.

After the death of his father, Thomas Harrison Garrett in 1888, Garrett, his mother, and two brothers, Horatio W. Garrett and John W. Garrett, spent the next two-and-half years traveling Europe and the Near East. During this time, Garrett developed a life-long curiosity in collecting ancient manuscripts and historic artifacts, consisting of Western and non- Western manuscripts, fragments, and scrolls, originating from Europe, the Near East, Africa, Asia, and Mesoamerica.

Garrett’s deep interest in recreation stems back to his own natural ability as an athlete. Garrett excelled in track and field events as an undergraduate at Princeton. He was captain of the team in both his junior and senior years. In 1896 he organized and financed a trip for himself and three classmates to the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Garrett stood out among the competitors, winning two first place and two second place medals. One of his first place medals was in the discus throw, an event in which he had never before competed. He also competed in the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, France, in the shot put, standing triple jump, and tug of war events.

Robert Garrett competing in the discus at the 1896 Summer Olympics.
Public Domain, Library of Congress


During the early modern Olympics, First and Second place medals were made of silver and Third place contestants did not receive a medal.

Upon receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton in 1897, Garrett joined the family banking firm of Robert Garrett & Sons and became one of Baltimore’s most prominent businessmen. Throughout his life, he maintained contact with his alma mater, serving as class president for 64 years and on the Board of Trustees. In 1905 he was elected a Life Trustee of Princeton University. Garrett donated to Princeton University his collection of more than 10,000 manuscripts, including 16 rare and beautiful examples of Byzantine art in 1942.

Garrett played an intricate part in the development and financing of Baltimore’s public recreation. In 1903 he established the first of several open-air gymnasiums in the city and organized sporting events among youth in the public parks. He was a founding member of the Public Athletic League in 1907, which he served as president. The following year he invited Lee Hanmer, co-organizer of the Boy Scouts of America, to Baltimore to help establish an expanded program of playgrounds, public gymnasiums, and athletic games for youth. In 1922 the Public Athletic League and the Children’s Playground Association joined forces to development the Playground Athletic League, which later became the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks. Garrett’s service as chairman to these organizations was successive throughout their development until 1948.

Only an individual with a dedicated sense of civic responsibility would have served his city so continuously, and his long tenure bore testimony to Garrett’s high standards and exceptional ability. His record in Baltimore was matched by his demonstrated loyalty to the National Recreation Association, for he was first elected a member of its Board of Directors in 1910, became third vice-president in 1916, and served as its chairman from 1941 until his retirement in 1950. In a letter to Garrett, Joseph Prendergast, executive director of the Association, wrote: “The Board of the National Recreation Association is justly proud of your 40 years of splendid, unselfish service as one of its members and of the nine years within that period during which you served as chairman of the Board. Times without number, your broad experience and personal knowledge in the fields of recreation, sports, education, finance, and the cultural arts have strengthened the deliberation of the Board and given its members a sense of renewed confidence.”

Garrett will best be remembered for his work in behalf of public recreation. He not only contributed his time to assure success, but often donated his personal finances. Recreation was an interest which, as an athlete himself, he maintained throughout his life. Garrett was one of the first of his generation to realize that public recreation was not a luxury but a necessity. In a life of effort to meet this need he was a pioneer, a foundation builder, and, in a sense the embodiment of the public’s conscience. Garrett holds the distinction of being the first lay worker to receive the R. Tait Mackenzie Award from the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance “for outstanding work in health, physical education, and recreation.”

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.
  • Hartsoe, C. (2007). Building better communities: The story of the National Recreation Association (1906- 1965). Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing.
  • National Recreation Association (February, 1951). Robert Garrett retires, Recreation. 470.

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