WHEELING - When Tom Bechtel took a job with the Wheeling Recreation Department in 1974, he was fresh out of college and looking for a steady paycheck while he figured out what he wanted to do with his life.
"I still haven't decided yet, so I'm staying here," he said with a smile while supervising construction of a new press box at the J.B. Chambers Youth Sports Complex in Elm Grove.
Bechtel recently marked his 40th anniversary as a city employee and was honored by Wheeling City Council with a plaque.
Photo by Ian Hicks
Wheeling Recreation Department Director Tom Bechtel, right, chats with field caretaker Bert Whorton at the J.B. Chambers Youth Sports Complex in Elm Grove.
As Recreation Department director, he is the man working hard behind the scenes to make sure it's all fun and games for the children who utilize Wheeling's playgrounds, swim in its pools and travel from all over the region to play on its ballfields.
From coordinating basketball camps and baseball tournaments to organizing the city's annual Playground Olympics program and drawing up Little League schedules, it's a year-round job - and one in which Bechtel takes great pride.
"I can't imagine there's a town in America our size that has our spectrum of recreation," he said of Wheeling.
Almost from Day 1, things didn't go as planned for Bechtel, to put it mildly.
Within a week after he started, the city's recreation director abruptly quit, leaving Bechtel to handle many of his duties.
Some months later, he was offered the title officially - a formality, really, because he'd essentially been serving in that capacity all along. And today, at age 62, he's not ready to give it up.
"I could retire tomorrow if I wanted to," Bechtel said. "But it's not even on my horizon because I enjoy what I do."
For that, he gives all the credit to his co-workers, and he has a bit of trouble masking his embarrassment when talking about his recent recognition by City Council for his many years of service. For example, he points out that his secretary, Barb Janetski, has been working for the city even longer than he has, his playground coordinator, Maria Shipley, has been with him almost from the start and the Operations Department, and longtime employee Don "Bones" Spielvogel in particular, do an amazing job keeping up with the day-to-day physical maintenance of Wheeling's recreation facilities.
And, he reflects, the job doesn't seem so much like work when you get the chance to do it alongside two of your best childhood friends.
Gene Ammirante and Jim Dailer are better known for other pursuits - Ammirante, for his legendary career as Bellaire High School's boys' basketball coach, and Dailer as Bishop Donahue High School's athletics director, a post from which he will retire at the end of the school year after 40 years in education. But both worked summers as lifeguards in college and are still with the Recreation Department, Ammirante as assistant director and Dailer as summer swimming director.
"The three of us were in the same class in Wheeling Central in 1969, and our three desks were right next to each other," Bechtel said.
Another aspect of the job Bechtel enjoys is working with young people, many of them teenagers who are experiencing their first summer job. Though they may only be working eight or 10 weeks at a time, they often come back summer after summer, and after 40 years, Bechtel can't help but notice some of the last names repeating themselves.
"It's kind of neat. We have kids of former employees working for us now," Bechtel said.
One of Bechtel's proudest accomplishments is overseeing the transformation of the J.B. Chambers Youth Sports Complex, more commonly known as the I-470 fields, which has almost been a full-time job in itself, he said.
Bechtel said the fields were in virtually unplayable condition when the city took them over about 13 years ago. It's been a community effort since, he said, adding almost all improvements that have been made there have been the result of private donations.
Today, the fields play host to events such as the Edgar Martin Beast of the East Classic baseball tournament, which draws teams from all over the East Coast to Wheeling. And just last year, the venue took another step forward with its newest addition - a Miracle League field, which allows local children with special needs to enjoy baseball safely.
Another big change is coming this year, with the new J.B. Chambers Recreation Park set to open in East Wheeling. With an artificial turf field suitable for multiple sports, the $3.3 million project will be unlike anything Wheeling's seen before.
"It's going to be beautiful," Bechtel said. "We're going to have to make a serious commitment to keeping that project first-class."