Monday Profile: A community-minded man
Tom Whitmore’s knack for agriculture blooms into a career growing and building amenities for the city of Rifle
Take a walk or even a drive through the city of Rifle and you will see a park, trail, or facility that Rifle Parks and Recreation Director Tom Whitmore has had a hand in building or maintaining.
With the opening of the Rifle Metro Pool to the public last week, Whitmore has a lot to smile about. The pool is just one of many crowning achievements in his 25 years with the city of Rifle. Whitmore has watched the small town grow into a bustling little city with recreation amenities of a city more than five times its size.
Whitmore can only smile as he looks around his office and the expansive Parks and Recreation Building located in Deerfield Park and remember back when it all began in a quaint 800 square-foot shed at Rose Hill Cemetery.
A native of eastern Colorado, Whitmore grew up in Burlington, raised as a self-professed farm and ranch kid.
“People say where is Burlington,” Whitmore jokes. “You drive to the Kansas state line and turn around and come back 12 miles.”
Whitmore moved to Rifle in 1984, but it wasn’t to work for a farm, a ranch or even the city. Instead, the recent Colorado State University graduate came to town to teach.
“The first job I was hired for out of college was here in Rifle. I taught high school agriculture for 10 years,” Whitmore said. “I really like it, with high school agriculture you get to know the kids, their parents, brothers, sister, aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins. It was really rewarding.”
Not too long after he moved to Rifle, Whitmore met his wife Lisa who was a special education teacher and later a principal in the school district.
Whitmore found that he was burned out from working the 11-month contract compared to the 9-month contract most teachers received. The job also included being at the county fair every summer and helping students with their projects.
“The program really grew and the school district couldn’t really swing hiring another teacher,” Whitmore said.
With usually only a month off, he would spend most of that time taking courses to keep his credentials up to date.
“I’d come back to start the school year, and everyone is fresh and they would say I looked tired,” Whitmore said. “I joke that by the time I quit 10 years in, I felt like I had 2 or 3 more years than all my peers that worked the same amount of time. I loved Rifle so I stayed.”
Looking for a new career, Whitmore spent some time working for a fencing company for a season before he was told about a job with the city.
“A lady my wife and I knew worked in the planning department at the city, and said you know there is this job open, she knew my background and thought I might be a good fit for it,” Whitmore said.
He thought the job opening might be in his wheelhouse, given his outdoors and agriculture background. Whitmore had a lot of experience with turf and irrigation, he and his brother had a lawn service growing up, and he also did an internship with the soil and conservation service doing irrigation testing and pump efficiency.
“It was funny, the city manager at the time said he didn’t know why I would be qualified to take care of all the park. I said you realize corn is a grass, too,” Whitmore said.
With the right amount of tactful persistence Whitmore was hired as the Parks Supervisor in October 1995.
When he started with the city there were four people including him, the recreation director, an athletics coordinator/parks worker that they shared, one guy to help mow and a crew from the correctional facility.
“I’ve known Tom the majority of my life, he lived across the street from one of my best friends. We use to go play at his house all the time, his kids were about the same age as us,” Aquatics Coordinator Jessica Wilson said.
“I really enjoy working with Tom, just because he kind of that funny guy that has jokes and stories all of the time. Even when you’re having a bad day he can put a positive spin on it.”
Besides the city parks, they maintained only a few sports fields run by the department and they were all south of what is now East 30th Street, which was gravel at the time.
“It was kind of funny as I recall that the city manager during the interview process neglected to tell me that I also had to take care of a cemetery,” Whitmore said. “You go work on a ball field, go plant a tree, or fix irrigation, and then go dig a grave. You would come back later to close it and then go back to whatever else you were doing.”
Whitmore said his job for the first 15-17 years of his career was all hands on, out in the field.
“Your kind of the lead person in parks, but you’re also doing the work,” Whitmore said. “So it always involved coming back to the office for an hour to do some paperwork, and get back out in the field.”
Over the years his title changed as the department evolved and grew. Whitmore now manages 12 full-time staff members, many seasonal workers, and the staff of the new Rifle Metro Pool.
“The thing I’m really appreciative about Tom, he is always looking for alternative sources of money. Different types of grants, private funding, and really trying to make every dollar work,” Mayor Barbara Clifton said. “We have to be as efficient as possible and Tom is really good at getting the maximum value out of every dollar.”
The city has 11 park locations encompassing approximately 40 acres in town; two are playgrounds only, 7 total playgrounds, and 8 sports fields, 5 miles of trail. They also maintain around 70 acres of the more than 400 acres at Rifle Mountain Park, picnic and camping sites.
“He is so into the community, he has bought into everything we have. That’s what has been so important for him is that we have nice facilities, this is where his kids grew up,” Wilson said.“The community is kind of like his family, so he kind of wants to take care of it that way.”
In the quarter-of-a-century he has been with the city Tom has had a hand in most of the projects that have shaped the cities green spaces today.
“When you look back on the number of things that Tom and his department have been able to accomplish in the city it is truly amazing,” Clifton said. “Deerfield Park, the new pool, Cooper Field, Cindy Skinner Field, the Parks and Rec building, all of those were built under Tom’s watch. For any person to be able to leave that kind of legacy is impressive.”
With a little over three months until he begins his 26th year with the city, Whitmore said he isn’t done yet and has a few more things he would like to see complete before he retires.
He has a priority list he keeps, and reviews every year depending on what kind of money is available a small project can be done sooner and for the bigger project that can be done later. Whitmore is going to keep his eye on the pool and hopes to add things like the lazy river and more slides that the community had hoped for but wasn’t within the budget.
“Rifle people are very grateful, when you make a little progress here they are very happy and patient about it. We’ve done little incremental steps at the park, but it’s not complete yet,” Whitmore said.
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