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After a career that has spanned nearly 40 years, Shelby County Parks and Recreation Director Clay Cottongim announced this week that will retire at the end of the year.
Cottongim, 58, said there’s no special reason he has chosen this time to retire; he just feels it’s time.
“It’s been thirty-eight wonderful years, and I’ve seen some goals come true, and I just want to retire and go on from there,” he said.
Both city and county officials that who worked with Cottongim have expressed regret that he is leaving, but they said they wish him the best, as well as praise for his efforts in shaping parks and recreation into what it is today.
“The parks have grown so much under his guidance; when he came here, all we had was a couple of ball fields,” Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger said.
Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty said he was surprised at the news. “I’m glad that he’s going to be able to retire and enjoy life, but we hate to lose him,” he said.
“He’s been responsible for the growth that we’ve seen in the parks for the last thirty-eight years. He’s been the driving force behind the success of the parks system as we know it today. He has devoted so many countless hours and days and years all because he really has such a love for the parks system.
“It hasn’t been just a job to him but a real love for the parks system and the entire community. He’s going to be greatly missed, and we will have some really big shoes to fill.”
Magistrate Hubie Pollett, who is chair of the county’s parks and recreation committee, said the process of selecting a successor for Cottongim will begin in January.
“When Clay leaves, I will get a committee together and put together a job description and get things going to start the hiring process,” he said. “I’d like to maybe even get Clay on the committee to have some input in choosing his successor.”
Pollett said he was surprised when Cottongim made his announcement at a parks board meeting Tuesday night.
“We knew it was coming up one day, but we didn’t know it was going to be last night [Tuesday],” Pollett said Wednesday.
Cottongim, a Shelby County native who graduated from Shelby County High School, was raised on a dairy farm run by his parents, the late Lewis and Frances Cottongim. Midway through working on a degree in parks and recreation administration at Eastern Kentucky University in 1974, he started working for the parks system part-time as a life guard at the Shelbyville city swimming pool, and within a month, he had moved up to aquatic director.
“I finished out my degree in seventy-seven and started here in January of seventy-eight as parks director,” he said.
More than baseball
Cottongim said he is proud of the legacy he leaves to the community’s park system.
“When I started here, all we had was three baseball fields, and everything that you see today has come about since I’ve been here,” he said.
The land for Clear Creek Park had been purchased in 1974, Cottongim said, but when he came onboard as director in 1978, nothing had really been done with it except the establishment of some basketball courts and some other minor things.
Cottongim said the biggest challenge of his career was in those early years, trying to bring about a change in the way the public viewed sports and the need for more varied facilities.
“To be truthful, the most difficult time was when I first started here and everybody saw this [Clear Creek Park] as a plain baseball park,” he said. “A lot of people didn't want to see soccer and softball and other sports come into play.
“And that was my hardest challenge, getting people to trust that it was all going to be OK and we would still take care of baseball.”
812 acres of parks
Cottongim succeeded in that goal more than he could ever have dreamed, he said. The parks board, established in 1970, operates 12 park properties encompassing more than 812 acres.
Cottongim said all the parks mean a lot to him, and he is especially proud of Shelby Trails, a nearly-400-acre equestrian park in Simpsonville that opened in 2011, and Red Orchard, established on Kentucky Street when Clarence Miller donated his family farm to the parks system a few years ago.
He said he hopes that whoever replaces him will continue to work to expand the parks system even more.
“The number one priority to me would be to acquire more land adjacent to Clear Creek Park for more expansion of the athletic fields, softball, baseball and even football and lacrosse, and to expand Clear Creek Park because it's so centrally located,” he said. “Because of our population growth, we need more athletic fields of all sorts. We've had a lot of requests for that, but we can't do it until we get more land, so I hope the city and county will continue to work together on that.”
‘The best boss’
Jeremiah Heath, director of the Family Activity Center at Clear Creek Park, spoke from Colorado, where he is vacationing, about Cottongim’s retirement.
“I have been working with him for six years, and he is the best boss that I have ever had,” he said. “People really don’t realize what he has done for this community.
“Across the entire country, most states are really pushing to promote nature and trying to get their parks systems built up, and Clay has been just phenomenal in that regard.”
Cottongim has not only helped to inspire the entire community into a health and fitness mode, but his family as well, including his son Wesley, 8, his daughter, Abby, 28, his son, Craig, 24, and his wife, Cynthia, who is assistant director of parks and rec of Kentucky State Parks.
Cottongim said his vision of having adequate facilities for the entire community to enjoy nature and keep active springs from his enjoyment of physical activities as a child and his wish for today’s youth to experience that as well.
“I remember when I was a kid, playing in a creek, and we had all kind of outlets like that back then, but nowadays, kids don't have that,” he said. “So to stay fit and active today, we need parks for them to play in, and also as a place for parents to go with their children.”