Imagine Lincoln without the chance to visit Sunken Gardens, stroll through the Hamann Rose Garden, ride your bike to Union Plaza, explore Nebraska’s Centennial Mall or walk your kids or grandkids to your neighborhood park.
Lincoln’s parks have grown to become one of the premier parks systems in the nation, but it hasn’t always been that way, according to Lynn Johnson, Lincoln Parks and Recreation director since 2000.
“Early settlers knew Lincoln as an endless rolling prairie with windswept grasses and salt flats,” Johnson said. “Lincoln would be a much different place today if families like the Seacrests, Faulkners, Woods and Freys had done nothing to alter the landscape. And we owe a great deal of gratitude to the Lincoln Parks Foundation for ensuring that Lincoln parks continue to thrive.”
Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Lincoln Parks Foundation was created in 1992 by Clancy Woolman, Dr. Jim Rickman, Bill Blake, Robert Helm, Phyllis Pauley, Fred R. “Bob” Sikyta, Marilyn Olson, Arlan Stromberg and Bus Whitehead, with the help of Jim Morgan, Lincoln Parks and Recreation director at the time. A private 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Foundation works closely with the Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department “to inspire and nurture a philanthropic legacy for parks and recreation in our community.”
Woolman, who was then serving as chairman of the Mayor’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, said there was a need to create an organization that allowed people to support parks.
“Parks were not being funded,” he said. “We had an opportunity to purchase more than 460 acres of virgin prairie surrounding Pioneers Park, and the land was sold before private money could be raised. It was heartbreaking.”
Woolman served as the Foundation’s first president and continued for many years. The Foundation works closely with the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and the Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department to identify and prioritize projects, formulate funding strategies and raise funds for construction and endowment.
Early projects included the Veterans Memorial Gardens, the annual golf tournament and a joint project with Lincoln Public Schools Foundation to raise money for playground equipment for Elliott School and Norwood Park, among others.
Partnerships and hard-working volunteers energized the small board. In addition to Woolman, former city attorney Bill Blake wrote the bylaws and served on the board from 1993-2016. Bill Woito was the Foundation’s treasurer from 1996-2012.
The Foundation took a big step forward in 2002, when it launched the "Polishing the Gem" campaign and raised $1.7 million to renovate the Sunken Gardens with new accessible walkways, an irrigation system and other visitor improvements. Community leaders, like Roger and JeNeane Dodson and Mike Seacrest, pushed it to success in less than one year.
“We couldn’t believe the response from individuals, foundations, organizations and businesses,” Woolman said. “Even kids were collecting pennies! It confirmed for us that people in Lincoln love their parks and are willing to give. That was a major turning point for the Foundation. It put us on the map.”
Since then, the Foundation has led other successful major campaigns including:
• $2.2 million to renovate Sherman Field (2008);
• $4.75 million to create Union Plaza (2010);
• $2.6 million to build Tower Square (2013);
• $9.6 million to renovate Nebraska’s Centennial Mall (2015); and
• $6.4 million to build the new Woods Tennis Center (2016).
The Foundation also makes mini-grants to neighborhood parks, provides scholarships for Lincoln children to attend parks and recreation programs, and gives a helping hand to passionate volunteers who want to raise money for park enhancements like pickleball courts, disc golf courses and dog runs.
All high-amenity public facilities have endowments to ensure that the quality of these facilities will be sustained and they remain beautiful and in good condition over time.
The Foundation-led campaigns benefit from hard-working volunteer campaign teams and widespread community support. Notable gifts include $1.5 million from Union Bank and Trust for Union Plaza and $2 million from Glenn Korff for Nebraska’s Centennial Mall.
“We have people walk through our doors nearly every day with checks large and small,” said Christie Dionisopoulos, who became the Foundation’s executive director in 2014. “They tell us stories about spending time with their families in parks, golf courses or gardens, and they want to give back to the places they feel connected to.
“I love everything about what we do, from working with volunteers and donors, to helping people find a way to make a gift that’s meaningful to them,” added Dionisopoulos, who moved here from Wisconsin with her family in 1999 and chose to volunteer for parks after enrolling her young sons at the Pioneers Park Nature Center Preschool. She served as president of the Lincoln Parks Foundation Board from 2008-10.
“Christie is an invaluable partner in her role of directing the work of the Parks Foundation,” said Lynn Johnson, Parks and Recreation director. “I value her positive, results-oriented approach to our collective work.”
Johnson also credits Susan Larson Rodenburg, who has served as fund development coordinator for the past 15 years. “Susan’s passion for parks and trails, energy, drive and organizational skills have been key ingredients in numerous successful capital campaigns,” he said.
The strong working relationship with the Parks and Recreation Department is key to the Foundation’s development and success, Dionisopoulos noted.
“We just couldn’t do what we do without the support provided by our City Parks staff,” she said. “Donors absolutely love the vision, enthusiasm and creativity of Lynn Johnson and his staff. They give because they have the confidence the project will be beautiful and also be maintained.”
With 126 parks, 132 miles of trails, nine pools, six recreation centers and five public golf courses, Lincoln’s park and recreation system has become more than just a “quality of life” factor. It also attracts businesses and young families to move to the Capital City. The Lincoln Chamber of Commerce uses parks and trails as part of its pitch.
Looking back, Woolman said it’s hard to believe that a small group of visionaries would start something that would have so much impact. “In my wildest dreams, I had no idea that we would be able to accomplish so much,” he said.
“The highlight for me was when I left the board last year, and knowing that it was time to turn it over to a younger generation and feeling a sense of real pride of accomplishment of what we’ve done in 25 years,” added Bill Blake, a long-time board member. “And knowing it’s in such good hands. It’s everything we hoped for and more.”
The future is bright for beautiful spaces in Lincoln, and the community’s needs continue to grow. Parks leaders hope to build on the Foundation’s success with donors and with neighborhood and community groups to improve parks and further enhance the quality of life in Lincoln.
“I’m so excited to be part of an organization that allows people to give to something that they love,” Dionisopoulos said. “The parks offer people a living legacy. Whether it’s making a memorial gift or a major donation, there’s a way for everyone to be involved.”
The Lincoln Parks Foundation has a new home at 3140 N St., Suite 301, Lincoln, NE 68510. For more information about the Lincoln Parks Foundation and to see a complete list of projects, visit LincolnParks.org.