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Telling Stories: The Secret to Tom O'Rourke

Posted By Amanda Parsons, Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Tom O'Rourke

For the last few months, people have been telling me how great Tom O’Rourke is.  I’ve heard that he is passionate, powerful, engaging, and friendly.  I’ve also heard he is clever, kind, and successful.  It was made clear to me that this man is a Legend. 

His vocal fan base is the reason we asked him to be our keynote speaker at this year’s ORPA Annual Conference.  (Spoiler: He said ‘Yes’)

From all the hype, I was understandably nervous when I called up the famous Tom O’Rourke to request an interview.  For someone so popular, I expected I’d have to convince him to sit down with me.  And that I would have to fight his calendar for 30 minutes of his time.

Instead, a friendly voice drawled through the receiver, “I am so excited to be visiting Oregon.  I’d love to chat.”

That was the start of me understanding what everyone was talking about.  The Tom O’Rourke everyone knows and loves. 

Tom is warm, open, and honest.  He is laid-back and approachable.  We talked about his life in parks and recreation, new plans, past successes, and what he will bring to Oregon.  From the very beginning he made the interview feel like two friends catching up.

It was a shame, then, that I had to ruin it by addressing the elephant in the room: Tom’s recent split from Director’s School.

“I was a teacher at Director’s School for a long time.  Here is what it does that is really good.  It connects people.” Tom said.  “You are going to run into 3 or 4 people that you really connect with and then you stay with them for the rest of your professional life.  And if it wasn’t for Director’s School, that wouldn’t happen.”

After a long pause he admitted, “I’m different.  I say things I shouldn’t say.”  I imagine this is a built-in disclaimer that Tom has honed to prepare new acquaintances with his South Carolinian mannerisms.  But he then disclosed, “I thought there needed to be some real hard looks into the curriculum.

“What we need to be teaching directors is how to fight with elected idiots.  Those are the skills they need to be armed with.  Where do you go when the answer is no?  That’s a class!”  

“It sounds like you have ideas for great curriculum,” I said, “where are you taking it?”

“I’ve been fortunate to be asked by state associations to put together some unique and different training programs that will really get directors to a place where they need to be going, with real world stuff.”  He got excited and continued, “Political environments are horrible, nobody’s got any money, and the public is so damn demanding it is hard to get out of bed in the morning.  So how do you deal with that?”

I should note, the Oregon Recreation and Park Association is not currently working with Tom O’Rourke to develop a training program, but don’t be surprised if we start!

“In addition to working with states and traveling while speaking, you are also working as a Professor of Practice at Clemson University.  What do you teach?” I inquired.

“It is interesting how that came about,” he started.  “What universities need, they need someone who has gotten out in the field and gotten dirty.  So, they allowed me and their faculty to assist in developing a certificate type program [through the] Department of Parks Recreation and Tourism Management.  I think it is a great thing to have, and luckily, with distance education, anyone could take this graduate level program and never have to come to campus.”

I mentioned that many people will be happy to have this option, since we don’t have a parks and rec degree in Oregon.  Tom brushed the comment off.  “You know what else isn’t a bad idea?  If state associations could say, ‘You know, it’s not really about the kind of degree you get.  It’s about the knowledge.’” Despite working to develop a certificate program, his point was clear: experience trumps all.

“When I travel around and speak, I’m not trying to educate you.  I’m trying to jump into your soul and grab it!  I’m trying to change who you are, not what you do.” His voice resonated through the phone with conviction. If we were speaking face to face I’m sure he would have grabbed me and shaken me, in an attempt to rattle passion to the surface. 

It probably works.

What I was starting to figure out about Tom was that he wants to leave a legacy of empowering people to improve parks and recreation.  And as it turns out, it is all parks and recreation.

“To me, parks and recreation is almost like a state of mind.  You’ve got parks, which are places you do things.  And then you’ve got recreation, which is the thing that you do.  And honestly, you could convince me that everything you do outside of work could fall some way into parks and recreation.”

“The passion you have for parks and recreation couldn’t be an accident.  How did you fall into this career field?” I inquired.

“My father was the recreation director of the community I grew up in.” he said.  Apparently it runs in the family.  “My father’s jurisdiction had about 5,000 people in it.  I work for Charleston County Parks where we serve 300,000 people.  What my father did, and what I do, are the exact same thing.  We make people’s lives better.”

Tom described the work his father did, especially as it compares to his own work.  Most striking was the fact that he didn’t describe it as work, as a job, or even as a career.  Over and over again in his stories, he described it as serving people.  As changing people.  As enabling them to do anything thing they put their mind to.

Even pole vaulting.

“For the last 10 years or so, I’ve been coaching track and field, and mostly pole vaulting” he drawled casually. 

For a moment I was caught off guard by how easy it sounded.  I thought, ‘maybe pole vaulting is something different in the South?’ 

Tom clarified, “this is an event where the majority of people who see it say, ‘Holy crap! Is that hard?’ But if you start with step one and work your way up, it’s really not that hard at all.  I could teach anyone to pole vault.  Anybody.”

Then Tom wove a touching story about a boy who lacked athletic prowess and the confidence to amount to anything in the bizarre sport of pole vaulting, but who, with Tom’s coaching (and personal brand of frankness) was able to realize victory and develop a sense of self-worth. 

When Tom tells a story you are enraptured.  From beginning to end he makes you invested in the success of the people in the story.  He hooks you with the allure of triumph.  Ultimately, you walk away with a desire for him to teach you, too.

I asked him about working with adults – professionals in parks and recreation.

“There is no difference.” He said flatly.  “Not a damn bit of difference.  You don’t think 50-year-old men have confidence problems?  Everybody has the same issues, we just use different techniques to get there.

I teach this class, Becoming a Better Me” – (side note: this class is at conference this year!) – “and at the end of the day I ask, ‘Why are you here?  Why do you breathe when you get up in the morning?’  And if you can find that answer then you are going to be just fine.  Then I teach you how to feed it when you find that answer.”

His emphasis on interpersonal skills, self-reflection, and uncovering a passion, all play an important role in success in the industry.

“The truth is,” he sighed, “these are hard jobs.  People are laying people off and there is no money.”  He took a deep breath.  “Instead of being laid off because there is no money, how do you be the person who walks into your director’s office and says, ‘Listen, here is what we are going to do.  I don’t need money.  I’ve got sponsorship to pay for this, and this, and this.’  And that is how it all changes.”

Of course, the confidence is half the battle.  Where do parks and recreation professionals get the money? 

“It seems like we are all in the same boat, looking for money,” I appealed.  “How do we get good at securing it?”

Tom laughed and I could almost hear the nod on the other end of the phone. “I’m in South Carolina, the reddest of the red states.  The most conservative, no taxes place you’ve ever been to.  Our budget is $44 million, and we get $9 million in tax money.”

Immediately my stomach dropped at the thought of hardship his county must endure to keep the doors open.

He continued smoothly, “So, I’ve got to raise over $30 million a year in fees.  And actually, we do it.  And we do it kinda easily.”

This is where Tom’s involvement in the Parklands Foundation of Charleston County comes into play.  The Parklands Foundation is a way for the county to raise money that not only provides services, but allows access to everyone, despite ability to pay fees.

At this point Tom became distracted telling an amazing, and tear-jerking, story about how the tragic drowning of a child prompted the building of a new pool.  It served as parable for the importance of funding recreation, especially in low-income communities.

“Here’s the thing,” I could hear Tom gearing up for an impassioned declaration. “I couldn’t go to bed at night if we were only an agency for people with money.  I couldn’t do it!  We serve everyone.  Everyone!”

He makes it sound like a wonderful utopia surviving against all untaxed odds.  But it still begs the question – how does he raise the money?

“You’ve got to have a story.  It’s got to be real, and you have to be able to explain it.” 

His answer should come as no surprise.  He had just spent the morning telling me story after story illustrating why parks and rec is important.  Tom has a way of easily making the connection between parks and rec and the health, happiness, confidence, and success of people served.  His success as an advocate comes from an innate understanding of how to frame issues and tug on heart strings.

The secret to Tom’s success in parks and recreation is the same thing he is trying to impart to everyone he meets.  He is a master story teller, and he is coming to Oregon this fall to help all of us become better story tellers, too.

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Comments on this post...

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Sue Boettner says...
Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2018
Nice job Amanda! Looking forward toe hearing Tom tell stories (speak)
Permalink to this Comment }

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City of Roseburg Parks & Recreation says...
Posted Wednesday, August 1, 2018
Great article Amanda! Looking forward to conference this year!
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Babs Hamachek says...
Posted Wednesday, August 1, 2018
Amanda, Great "story telling" of your interview with Tom!
Permalink to this Comment }


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