Under a balmy midday sun, Jerry Kotanko sat on a concrete picnic bench at Noel Booth Park, reflecting on four-plus decades of service with the Langley Township parks department.
At age 67, Kotanko hung up his work gloves on April 30 after nearly 41 years on the job, making him the municipality’s longest-serving employee, according to the Township’s record books.
That’s quite a feat considering the Township was incorporated in 1873.
Joining Kotanko for an interview with the Times was Bill Lindahl, 65, who’s no slouch himself when it comes to longevity with Langley Township parks.
Lindahl retired in 2008 after 35 years, a good chunk of those working side-by-side with Kotanko.
It’s no coincidence Kotanko chose Noel Booth Park as the place to look back on his work life. He sat near a canopy of trees that he planted many years ago.
“This was the first park when I started working, that I was involved with from almost scratch,” Kotanko said. “It was just a gravel pit, then. All of the trees, I planted with a blue tractor, and I dug the holes with it. They (started out) as four foot (high) or so and some were a bit more.”
The Township the two friends and former co-workers knew when they started with the parks department in the 1970s looked markedly different than it does today.
When Kotanko began his time with the municipality after applying “in the old hall” in 1977, it included 15 parks. The municipality has grown to more than 50 parks since then.
Following the lead of his dad, who also worked for the municipality, Lindahl started with the Township in 1973, four years before Kotanko came on board.
“It’s the maintenance and operation of the parks system so it was everything from mowing the grass to planting, to cleanup…,” Lindahl said.
Continuing the thought, Kotanko added “building fences, digging trenches… we didn’t have backhoes back then in the parks, so we dug all the trenches by hand.”
Lindahl’s longevity Township can be for the most part attributed to a love of the outdoors. “It was just a pleasant atmosphere to work. I mean who doesn’t want to be out in the parks? You knew the work was going to be there.”
“We had a good crew, we all got along good, worked good together and had fun together, we even played ball together at night time in the parks,” Kotanko added.
The one constant with the job was change, which Lindahl welcomed because it added flavour to his work life.
“The interesting thing about working in parks, I found, was because technology was changing so much, it was like almost every 10 years there was a new job. The artificial turf fields came along, the whole new methods of irrigation… when we first started here, we never dreamt of irrigating fields, (the existence of) artificial turf fields, lighted fields, (and) the buildings and facilities that have gone in,” he said.
Lindahl said his job was always changing. He and Lindahl helped develop Noel Booth Park, Brown Park, and Creekside Park (to name a few), by doing the grading, seeding, putting in drainage systems, and planting trees.
“We ended up learning how to do irrigation, how to repair it and even install it,” Kotanko said. “It was nice to be able to go and do a job and look back and see what was done. It kind of made you proud.”
“Being involved with the kids in the sports, too,” Lindahl offered. “With both of us, we’d have a diamond going through, we’d be in there playing and we’d hear the feedback directly from the user groups, and as we got older our kids were in sports, so you’d get a sense of what you’re constructing for parks and what it does for the community and for bringing everybody together.”
“Not only did you work in the community, you played in the community,” Kotanko continued. “Most of the people who worked in the Township way back then lived in the Township. We were part of the community and you spent your nights in the parks.”
When he retired a decade ago, Lindahl spent the first few months checking off all the items on his to-do list.
“It was more after a period of a couple months that you get those things knocked off the list that you gradually have to find other things to do to fill your time and keep your interests up,” Lindahl said.
Lindahl is part of the Arboretum and Botanical Society of Langley and is helping to build the Rotary Interpretive Centre at the Derek Doubleday Arboretum.
Meanwhile, Kotanko opens a new chapter of his life.“I’ve got lots to do,” he assured.
“I’m kind of used to working with people and being involved with people and that’s the part I’m going to miss. I’ve got a half acre of land out in Milner and big shop so I’ve got lots of work and I’ve got the grandkids involved with sports.”