The city-parish’s parks and recreation system this week is celebrating its 75th anniversary — something that has prominent leaders in the community reflecting on the impact BREC has had on so many since its inception.
“It really provided a lot of recreation for children in this community,” said Lillie Gallagher, an 85-year-old retiree who has been involved with BREC programs for more than 60 years. “There would be no BREC without a woman named Emma Cockerham Benton. She’d be thrilled to see what’s going on now.”
Benton was the mother of three and the wife of former state legislator Fred Benton, who co-authored the legislation that created the independent taxing district that funds BREC. It was something she lobbied her husband to do after years of frustration of not being able to get funds allocated toward parks and recreation from city government while she served on the recreation commission under East Baton Rouge’s former city council/police jury form of government.
“She had to beg, borrow and plead for the powers that be to get money for recreation,” recalls Gallagher, who was friends with Emma Benton’s youngest child. “She decided it would be much better if the city had a free-standing commission that would be a taxing district that could get its own money and wouldn’t have to go to the city council and police jury for their leftovers.”
BREC’s Board of Commissioners officially began on Jan. 4, 1947. The same year, the first tax election took place where voters approved $1 million for Memorial Stadium, improvements to swimming pools and other parks throughout the city.
And as they say, the rest is history.
The park system is a two-time winner of a National Gold Medal for excellence in park and recreation management from the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration and the National Recreation and Park Association. It won the award in 1975 and 1991 and has been a finalist in recent years.
Antiquated exhibits helped BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo lose its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, but is amid a 20-year upgrade plan valued at $25 million to $35 million. It said late last year it would likely seek reaccreditation late in 2022.
A video presentation of the park system’s history is only one of the aspects BREC is offering during the anniversary event it’s holding from 6-9 p.m. this Saturday at Independence Park.
Other activities will include a photo booth, face painting, balloon artist, magician and live music. Free food and fireworks are also on the schedule.
Collis Temple, Jr., a current board commissioner and prominent community leader, says his appreciation for BREC began 55 years ago when he frequently visited Baton Rouge with his family.
“I loved to swim and we didn’t have (community) swimming pools where I grew up in north Tangipahoa Parish,” he said. Community pools in south and north Baton Rouge were havens for black kids in those surrounding communities at time.
Temple, who became LSU’s first black varsity basketball player, first became a commissioner on the park system’s board in 1980 through an appointment from then-Mayor Pat Screen. He spent his first two terms on the board as an outspoken advocate for equal pay and benefits for BREC employees and pushing toward the desegregation of the parks system, which was still plagued by disparities in park offerings between the Black and White neighborhoods.
“We had to make sure all kids were given the opportunity to recreate equitably,” he said. “In 1980, it was still more segregated than it was desegregated. Those are just the facts. It was a challenge in the beginning because some board members weren’t accustomed to having someone like me who was really outspoken about what he felt and thought.”
For former LSU gymnastics head coach D-D Breaux, BREC helped her develop the organizational and business skills she used at LSU after building a gymnastics program at the park and recreation system’s downtown facility in the 1970s. She was approached about starting the program while a graduate student at LSU.
“They had no equipment, it was like starting from a blank slate,” Breaux said. “We started begging, borrowing and stealing from wherever we could. The program went from two days a week, to four and then developed into a competitive team.”
Breaux ran the program until she was named head coach at LSU in 1978.
“It really enhanced my knowledge of managing a program and running a small business,” Breaux said. “So much of what I had to do on my own was marketing, promoting and recruiting students.”