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Thomas E. Rivers

1892 - 1977

Inducted October 1997

 "You are not just playing games or participating in events. You are helping to build nations. You are helping to build peace. You are helping to build the kind of world to which leisure, in freedom prevails."
~Thomas E. Rivers

Thomas Ellis Rivers’ career in recreation spanned a period of approximately 60 years. While recognized as a national leader during the formative years of the recreation movement, Rivers’ principal infl uence was the development of recreation and leisure services on an international level. He was one of the leading forces in the creation of the International Recreation Association in 1956, later to be renamed the World Leisure and Recreation Association.

Rivers was born on October 6, 1892, in Meridan, MI. Upon graduation from Mount Hermon Preparatory School in Northfi eld, MA, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where he pursued an undergraduate program in social sciences. At the time Rivers graduated, World War I was still in progress. Shortly after receiving his degree, Rivers was inducted into the Army and assigned to a newly created civilian agency whose mission was to help local communities provide leisure activities for military personnel in communities and away from the military bases. War Camp Community Services (WCCS) was an organization created by the Playground and Recreation Association to deal with the unprecedented leisure needs of a newly mobilized national military force. It was this early experience in dealing with the leisure needs of military personnel that helped shape Rivers’ lifelong career.

Thomas Rivers was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Springfield College, MA, in recognition for his work in recreation and leisure at the international level.
American Recreation Journal, October 1960


Shah of Iran receives gold medal and certificate from T.E. Rivers, executive secretary, International Recreation Service.
Recreation, February 1956

Following World War I, Rivers remained on the staff of an expanded National Recreation Association, predecessor of the WCCS. Over the succeeding years, he held a number of prominent national staff positions, including that of a southern field representative, manager of personnel and placement services, secretary of the National Recreation School, and secretary of the National Recreation Congress, a position which he held for over 30 years. While on the staff of the National Recreation Association (NRA), Rivers developed a reputation as one of the most effective fund raisers for recreation in the nation.

Rivers’ interest in international recreation was stimulated by his responsibility for planning the first International Recreation Congress, held in Los Angeles, preceding the 1932 Olympic Games. This congress, hosted by the NRA, attracted more than 100 delegates from 40 countries. The success of this meeting prompted plans for a second international meeting to coincide with the 1936 Berlin Olympics. However, the potential for Adolph Hitler to expand Nazi propaganda through the Olympic process caused the NRA to boycott the second international meeting and it was not until 1956 that another major international meeting on recreation and leisure would be held.

During the 1950s, Rivers was instrumental in establishing a new International Recreation Service within the structure of the National Recreation Association. The development of this new service was stimulated by an extensive worldwide trip made by Rivers and his wife, Ruth, in 1952. During this trip, Rivers made contact with recreation leaders and public officials in several countries, including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Philippines, Hong Kong, and Japan. While in Japan, he presented medals and citations from the NRA to several Japanese recreation leaders and represented NRA at the sixth Japanese Recreation Congress. This trip made it clear of the exceptional opportunity for development of recreation and leisure on an international scale. In September 1953 the NRA established an office in Carnegie Endowment International Center to house the International Recreation Services. This office, headed by Rivers, was directly across from the United Nations in New York City.

Thomas Rivers addresses members of the international advisory committee at IRA’s organizational meeting in October 1956.
WLRA Journal, January/February 1981


Mr. and Mrs. Rivers and Vice-Admiral Norman, general secretary, National Playing Fields Association, at Buckingham Palace after seeing Duke of Edinburgh.
Recreation, March 1956

Rivers was soon to develop a reputation as the “global ambassador of recreation.” In 1955 he undertook a second major international journey, which took him to 22 countries where he met with both professional, and citizen leaders interested in recreation. This visit, along with his 1952 international trip, helped lay the groundwork for organizing the 1956 International Recreation Congress held in Philadelphia. This congress commemorated the golden anniversary of the NRA, and also served to launch the creation of the International Recreation Association. Rivers was appointed director general of the new organization, a position he held for 18 years. Under Rivers’ leadership, the International Recreation Association quickly established worldwide identity. Within three years, they became financially independent and no longer required budgetary support from the NRA.

Many accomplishments stand out during Rivers’ 18 years as director general. Among his most significant accomplishments were helping to organize national recreation associations in Brazil, Pakistan, India, Korea, Columbia, and Israel; providing leadership for the 1964 World Congress which took place in Japan; assisting in the formation of the European Recreation and Leisure Association and providing an expanded international philosophy. This broadened philosophy was evidence by an organizational name change in 1973 from International Recreation Association to World Leisure and Recreation Association. A testimonial to Rivers’ philosophy and leadership was the creation of a worldwide Charter of Leisure. This document, developed over a two and half-year period by an International Recreation Association committee, became an important tool for furthering recreation and leisure on a worldwide basis. It is evidence of Rivers’ vision of “Building a Better World through Recreation.”

30th Anniversary issue of World Leisure and Recreation


Western Union gram from President Dwight D. Eisenhower welcoming delegates of the International Recreation Congress, Philadelphia, 1956.
National Recreation and Park Association Archives

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.
  • National Recreation Association (September, 1955). World service through recreation, Recreation. 320-321.
  • National Recreation Association (January, 1957). The launching of the International Recreation Association, Recreation. 12-13.

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