BY RON BRINSON
“Our playgrounds and programs have always been about children and families; many things have changed. That hasn’t.”
— Gary C. McJunkin
At North Charleston’s new Wescott Park complex, kids play on fields that look like major league parks. There are state-of-the-art batting cages and sound systems, digitized score boards and spacious seating.
But this is not just another fancy neighborhood playground. The ball fields are complemented by a sprawling landscape of high ground and natural wetlands, with walking trails, picnic areas, a community center — and a dog play park. The complex serves the fast-growing Dorchester Road corridor, and there’s an instant impression that North Charleston made a good investment with $14.1 million and 55 acres of land donated a decade ago by a developer.
For park lovers and youth baseball and softball devotees, Wescott Park is upscale and defines state of the art. For North Charleston, it simply burnishes the city’s legacy of progressive parks and recreational facilities.
And fittingly, that legacy will be celebrated this weekend with a ceremony honoring Gary McJunkin for his 60 years of recreation department leadership. He’s the Baptist minister’s son who decided to stick around the North Area in 1953 when he finished his Army service, working first for the power company and later the post office. He became a ubiquitous coaching and league administration volunteer and aide-de-camp to the legendary Danny Jones.
Mr. Jones died unexpectedly in September 1966. McJunkin succeeded him as director of Cooper River Parks and Playgrounds Commission — and for 25 years thereafter, he created his own legend. North Charleston became a fledgling new city in 1972, and McJunkin did his part in sustaining recreational programs, even as the volatile politics of a new city played out. In 1959, when he was still “volunteering,” the Post and Courier sports staff named McJunkin “Lowcountry Sportsman of the Year.” In 2006, he was elected to the Charleston Baseball Hall of Fame.
McJunkin “retired” in 1991, but he didn’t stop working. Today, he’s 82 and the avuncular advisor in many offices at city hall. He continues to work on Dixie Youth Baseball governance committees.
Mayor Keith Summey considers McJunkin a life-lesson mentor: “‘Mr. Mac’ has been a role model and great influence on my life. He helped me develop as an individual, both in athletics and in life, through his guidance and leadership.”
Thousands share the mayor’s sentiment, and McJunkin seldom moves about the city without meeting someone who remembers the “playground days.” That’s understandable, considering his affable leadership dates back to 1953, to a time of few television sets, no cellphones and no computers. At Park Circle, we played ping pong and paddleball, attended teen club dances and played “ball” year round. Danny Jones taught us to swim. Our parents were volunteers who coached and ran concession stands and arts programs. Recreation was a community enterprise, and the Danny Jones menu of programs became rites of passage for thousands of children and teen-agers.
Ed Barfield now manages North Charleston’s highly regarded recreation department. Summey instructed Barfield and his team to take their time and get the Wescott development plan right. They did, and after a seven-year planning and design project, Wescott Park is different from Park Circle, yet similar in offering a broad menu of public services.
And a fair question persists: Are parks and playgrounds as enjoyable and valuable as they were 60 years ago? The current generation can answer for themselves; but for so many in my aging generation, those formative days at playgrounds like Park Circle were just as good as we recall them. And we tend to remember our coaches and playground leaders — the “Gary McJunkins” of our lives.
Today, progressive cities consider recreational facilities as educational and lifestyle investments. In the last year, North Charleston has rebuilt the Danny Jones Swim Center and the Pepperhill baseball park.Charleston is taking bids to build Northbridge Park at the north Ashley River bridge. Dorchester County Council is advancing plans to convert an 83-acre upper Ashley River site to a regional park.
So the new Wescott Park and the tribute to Gary McJunkin connect the past and present dots of public values of parks and playgrounds.
But what about the longer range future? Ours is an era of pounding demands for more government services and fewer tax dollars — and rampant development. Recreation could be an easy target for cost cutting.
Summey promises North Charleston will nurture the Jones-McJunkin legacy: “Every child and adult deserves opportunities to enjoy activities outside their work and home. It’s part of the equation of any city that cares about quality of living. It’s a legacy of our city.”
Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, is a North Charleston City Councilman. He can be reached at email@example.com.