Longtime Parks and Recreation Director Bill Gibbens hasn’t worked for the department in 27 years, but his presence still is felt at the facilities he formed, like Roy Morse Park, and the longtime cleanup he spearheaded at Lake Sacajawea Park.
Gibben’s widow Louise recently donated $20,000 in the name of the department’s founder, who passed away in April 2020 at 81.
“Youth was a big part of his life,” said Longview Recreation Manager Justin Brown. “Now we have more funding to continue to serve low-income children in our community.”
Bill Gibbens, a “gentle” and “nurturing” man who oversaw Longview’s Parks and Recreation Department for 11 years, died on April 20 at the age of 81.
The donation will provide more scholarships for kids to attend longstanding department programs like summer camp, where kids — who have been isolated indoors during the pandemic — can enjoy both the parks and their friends in person.
If scholarship awards remain the same as last year, about 570 children can attend summer camp with Gibbens’ gift for about $35 each. The department’s board determines the scholarship rate, and last year’s was set at 75% of the program’s cost.
Brown expects the funds to last years.
Like 2020, upcoming summer camp participants will cap at 18 grade school-aged children split between two sites to meet state restrictions to protect campers from the airborne coronavirus. Wearing masks, sanitizing and distancing will be required.
Before the pandemic, Brown said summer camp included up to 50 first through sixth graders split into two groups.
Tuesday, fifth grader Charleigh LaFountaine joined her friends at the Elks Memorial Building for Longview’s spring break camp and danced to the “Ghostbusters” theme song, cooked homemade corn dogs and just spent time together.
“I can talk with them without the connection going out,” said Charleigh, 11, who has been chatting with friends over online video software like Zoom.
After a year of both online socialization and learning, kids are craving in-person interaction.
Longview recreation specialist Barbie Morrison said kids that are picked up from day camps often are not ready to leave.
“They beg to stay longer,” she said. “It’s so hard for them to stay connected to other kids during this time with COVID.”
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Morrison has seen children like Charleigh grow up in Longview Parks and Recreation programs since she joined the department in 1987, with Gibbens at the helm.
“He was gentle and caring,” she said. “His smile lit up a room.”
Gibbens was Longview’s first full-time recreation director when he joined the department in 1966. He became the parks and recreation director in 1983 and retired in 1994.
In those years, Gibbens helped to form the staples of the city’s parks department, including Roy Morse Park, Mint Valley Golf Course and Mint Valley Racquet and Fitness Club, the McClelland Arts Center and Longview Senior Center.
He spearheaded a long-running $5 million campaign to clean Lake Sacajawea in the late 1970s. He organized volunteers and gathered donations to form the 7th Avenue Park in the early 1980s.
Brown estimates Gibbens had a hand in about 80% of today’s parks facilities.
Al George, the mastermind behind Lake Sacajawea’s Japanese gardens, was the superintendent of the parks when Gibbens was director.
“He was extremely friendly, and always helpful,” said George. “I’ve never had a supervisor I admired so much.”
George said Gibbens was as passionate about his employees as he was serving the public.
Now, a year after his death and more than 50 years after he began working with the parks, Gibbens’ impact will continue.
Charleigh, who did not say whether she has received a department scholarship, already is anticipating summer camp activities at Lake Sacajawea with her peers.
“We kayak, we canoe,” she said. “I made friends here.”