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West St. Paul can thank James Kennedy for its current plethora of parks as well as recreation programming. Kennedy vocally supported parks and actively worked to make them better. He’s one of the city’s longest serving City Council members, the last West St. Paul resident to serve as county commissioner, and Kennedy Park is named after him.
“It was through his insistence and guidance that the little park, with a skating rink in the wintertime, was established.”Bob Kuehn
When Kennedy started his work on City Council, it pre-dated the current city manager form of government. At the time, Council members oversaw specific city departments. Kennedy took on parks and recreation and made incredible strides, even as a city managers took over and staff managed more of the day-to-day work.
- Parks and Recreation Advisory Board: He appointed the original board in 1963. He served as chairman and vice chairman for more than a dozen years.
- Events: Kennedy helped coordinate park events, including an annual Fourth of July event at Thompson Park, complete with fireworks, that drew 500 to 700 people.
- Partnerships: He forged partnerships with the school district for shared recreation programs and facility use. He worked closely with the hockey association on the ice arena and represented the city in negotiating with the Commercial Club for the city’s acquisition of Thompson Park (later transferred to Dakota County).
- Physical labor: More than meetings and handshakes, Kennedy got his hands dirty. He literally built the playground equipment, including teeter totters, climbing ladders, and jungle gyms, as well as worked on outdoor grills, plumbing, water fountains, and other park equipment.
- Park expansion: When federal funds became available for parks, Kennedy supported a bond issue that massively expanded West St. Paul Parks, including the creation of new parks, such as Garlough, Weschcke, Haskell, Marthaler, Dodd, Orme, Southview, and Gladstone Parks.
“During my years on the board, we always had good participation and I never missed a meeting. It was one of the most rewarding groups I ever served on.”James Kennedy
In 1973, City Council named the new, two-acre park in Forty Acres after Kennedy, noting he was “instrumental in the establishment of the city’s recreation programs and parklands.”
History: A wooded ravine with a creek used to run through the area north of Annapolis between Winslow and Dodd. Neighborhood kids, including Kennedy, played in the “Big Ditch” area and sled down “Tannery Hill.” Then the city began filling the creek in, starting in 1960, making the area available for housing.
”Alderman Jim Kennedy was unwilling to see the entire traditional playground area, where he himself played as a boy, given over to housing,” said historian Bob Kuehn in West St. Paul Centennial. “It was through his insistence and guidance that the little park, with a skating rink in the wintertime, was established.”
Kennedy lived in Forty Acres, near his namesake park, in the former home of early city Mayor Hartwig Deppe at 848 Allen Avenue.
Kennedy’s service in elected office spanned four decades:
- West St. Paul City Council: 1961-1976 and 1984-1994
- Dakota County Board of Commissioners: 1977-1980
- Kennedy is the second longest serving City Council member in West St. Paul history.
- He tried to add to that total, running for reelection in 1994. He lost in the primary as all Council incumbents were swept out of office. He tried again in 1996 and again lost in the primary.
- In 1962, Kennedy initially lost by two votes. But a recount declared him the winner with a margin of 127 votes.
James Kennedy in 1977 during his term on the Dakota County Board of Commissioners. (Photo credit: Dakota County Historical Society)
Kennedy passed away in 2006 at the age of 91 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
“His footprint was felt long after he left the City Council,” said then Mayor John Zanmiller in a 2006 Pioneer Press article when Kennedy passed away.
- Prevailing wage: A pipefitter and union member, Zanmiller noted that Kennedy was instrumental in passing the prevailing wage ordinance in 1989 that required contractors on city projects to pay the prevailing union wage.
- Watchdog: Family members described Kennedy as a Council watchdog—and at times a “bulldog.”
- Populist: Zanmiller described Kennedy as a populist: “However it played with the public is how he thought it should be played in government,” Zanmiller told the Pioneer Press.
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