Ready to ‘Pass the Baton’: Norwich Recreation Director Set to Retire

  • Jill Kearney Niles watches a recreation league basketball game at the Marion Cross school in Norwich, Vt., on Dec. 12, 2018 in Norwich, Vt. Kearney Niles is retiring as Norwich's Director of Recreation in March. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jill Kearney Niles talks with John Starosta, of Norwich, Vt in between basketball games in Norwich, on Dec. 13, 2018. Starosta passed on to Kearney Niles instructions for operating a new scoreboard written by John Girard, a beloved Norwich teacher and coach, who died this year. Kearney Niles is retiring as Norwich's Director of Recreation in March. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Norwich's Director of Recreation Jill Kearney Niles talks with basketball players John Taylor, left, and Jack Lobb, both 11, and from Norwich, Vt., before the start of their game on Dec. 12, 2018. Taylor was hoping he would be able to swap his jersey for a differant size. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jill Kearney Niles, left, watches a basketball game with Sarah Martin, the fifth-and sixth-grade basketball coach in Norwich, Vt., on Dec. 12, 2018. Kearney is retiring as Norwich's Director of Recreation in March.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/13/2018 11:59:59 PM

Norwich — The town of Norwich was a much different place when Jill Kearney Niles took over as the town’s director of recreation 26 years ago. She just hopes the energy she’s brought to the job, and a collaborative attitude she’s cultivated, has helped make it better.

Kearney Niles publicly announced her intention to retire from her post on Nov. 28 during a selectboard meeting, a position she’s held since 1992. In that time, the Montreal native and mother to two-time Olympic athlete Hannah Kearney helped diversify the recreation department’s programs, and organized a robust list of programs offered to all ages. She also helped develop Norwich’s Huntley Meadows into the multi-sport facility it is today.

“I think it was just time, a lot of reasons,” Kearney Niles said during an interview on Wednesday in her office at Norwich’s Tracey Hall. “I think, in the team concept, just passing on the baton in the relay to the next person and let it become their new vision. Hopefully a lot of what I’ve built will grow even more, and maybe they’ll add some new ideas.”

Ryan Gardner, the Hanover High boys lacrosse coach who has also served as the Norwich Recreation Council’s president for the last year, said Kearney Niles’ hands-on approach has helped broaden Norwich’s recreational offerings and made the community more active in the process.

“I wouldn’t stop (in just Norwich),” Gardner said over the phone on Thursday. “The overall Upper Valley recreation community has become better in her 26 years. She’s just been an absolute pleasure to coach for and work with.”

Kearney Niles will be staying on until March to help with the transition. A job posting for the position went live earlier this week, asking for someone to be “responsible for directing the development and provision of recreation programming for town residents, along with all departmental administrative functions.”

Kearney Niles was born in Montreal, graduated from McGill University with a degree in education and health and moved to Norwich in 1980. She taught physical education at the Lyme School, the Ray School and Richmond Middle School. After having her two children — her son, Denny, played hockey at Yale — she joined Northern Lights Gymnastics part-time before joining the Norwich Recreation Department as its director of recreation.

“I think it was 15 hours a week when I started,” she said with a laugh. “It was a good mix because I had another part-time job and I had two little children. But this, very quickly, morphed into (a full-time job) — responding to the needs of the public and people asking for more and more.”

As a community, Kearney Niles said, Norwich’s interest in youth sports and having a variety of physical offerings remains high. The recreation department now runs more than 100 programs a year. It was part of the reason why the job, over time, became more responsibility.

“The people of Norwich wanted to have, and still do want to have, things for their children to do,” Kearney Niles said. “I really enjoyed it and wanted to respond.”

Kearney Niles said she is also proud of the fact that her recreation department has remained close to self-sufficient; the department raises nearly 80 percent of its annual budget, she said. In 2017, for example, the department raised $197,525 in revenue and spent $237,106 according to its latest budget.

“Her biggest strength is that she knows all the kids and all the coaches; she’s is incredibly supportive of the coaches,” Gardner said. “A lot of people in Norwich are here and they’re working at the school, at the hospital, working with kids. … She’s done a great job with services to the community, continuing to recognize the need that communities have for different recreation offerings.

“It’s really the fabric of the community — yoga classes, whatever, getting people together in ways that they don’t normally, seeing each other outside of work or elsewhere.”

Kearney Niles said when she arrived, the Recreation Department’s offerings were limited to seasonal youth sports. Now, it offers a variety of activities for seniors and youngsters alike.

“It’s different. The community is different, now. I wouldn’t say it’s bigger — the number of kids has actually gone down in the school,” she said. “I think people expect more now, so we try to keep a nice, diverse range of programs to offer and have something for everybody.”

But Kearney Niles said her proudest accomplishment is her department’s work at Huntley Meadow, which now features baseball, softball and soccer fields and a mountain bike trail that opened last October.

“When I think of when I began here, Huntley Meadow was basically two fields and a softball diamond. There was a lot of big, open space, but a lot of it wasn’t even mowed,” she said. “Now, it’s gorgeous. That I have to give a ton of credit to a lot of people. … I’m very proud of all of it, but I’m not taking credit for it.

“I was really lucky to have these really incredible people who were engaged in the town,” she added. “They had a vision and I supported them however I could. But they were wonderful in really putting in the extra time to get out there, to beat the bushes, to have people donate and oversee the project.”

For now, Kearney Niles is looking forward to retirement; she has a list of places she wants to visit and things she wants to do. Gardner hopes a new director will have the same kind of energy.

“I’ve never seen her without a smile on her face,” Gardner said. “I’d love to see somebody that has the same kind of boundless enthusiasm with the community and with the kids that Jill does.”

The deadline to apply for the position is Jan. 18.

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.

Correction

The Norwich Recreation Department had $197, 525 in revenue and spent $237,106 in 2017. An earlier version of this story failed to include $28,113 in fees raised from the rental of athletic fields.




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