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Health & Fitness

Willis Winters Finds His Favorite Park Bench

After 30 years with the Dallas Parks Department, Winters offers a few parting words.
Willis Winters Portrait
Billy Surface

`Here’s a hypothetical for you. Now that you are retiring this month, you have to visit one Dallas park for at least one hour every single day. Which park do you pick and why?
This is the architect and historian coming out in me. It’s got to be Fair Park because it’s such a grand public space for the city. It’s a complex park that has magnificent art deco buildings and monumental public sculpture, more than you can find anywhere else in the country. I think it embodies the history of Dallas like no other park in the city.

What’s your favorite spot at Fair Park?
Definitely the Esplanade. I think it’s one of the great urban vistas in the city. It was constructed in 1936 for the Texas Centennial. Every trolley in the city came to those front gates. The process of walking in, through that series of axial spaces, is amazing. The Urban Land Institute named it one of the great public spaces in America.

Your dad was also a parks director, in Garland. Did his job lead you to yours?
Absolutely. He was the first director of Garland’s park department, in 1955. Yeah. He passed away in ’82. He was still director when he died. So I can definitely say it was in my blood. When he would go into the office on weekends, I would head to the drafting room in back. They had park planners with drafting tables. I would go back there and sit at the drafting tables and look at all the cool things that they were working on. That made me from a very early age want to be an architect. I went to the University of Texas, graduated, worked for a great Dallas architect for 12 years, and then had an opportunity to join the Park Department. That was in 1993. Here I am almost 27 years later. I never ever saw this coming.

What’s the one accomplishment from your run that you’re proudest of?
I have had the privilege of participating in the planning of six bond programs. That probably adds up to over $1 billion in improvements to the Dallas park system. You know, I was one of the few park directors in America that was an architect. So I had a definite focus on design. I did projects that impact the entire city but also projects that impact neighborhoods on a granular level. We had a Pavilion Program, about 40 picnic pavilions across the city. We could have ordered model No. 3 out of the picnic shelter catalog, but instead we hired architects and landscape architects from around the state and nation—and even, in one case, internationally. I’m pretty proud of that.

You nearly died in 2012. How is your body holding up?
Yeah, my wife and I were in Santa Fe and I came down with some kind of a lung pulmonary infection. The doctor that treated me was the same doctor that handled the Ebola cases at Presbyterian. It was very serious. I was in the ICU for two weeks and in the hospital for two months. They didn’t know if it was a virus or a bacterial infection, so they just threw everything at me. And here I am eight years later, still alive and grateful for it. But the long-term effects, the steroids cause your hip bone sockets to deteriorate. So I’ve had both hips replaced, and I had a mitral valve replacement. At age 62, I definitely have issues. This is my priority, dealing with my health. Because of my job, it has always been the lowest priority. Now I’m going to work on it.

Which is more important: curing cancer or dredging White Rock Lake?
[laughs] It has to be dredging. When I started with the Park Department, dredging the lake was one of the first things I worked on. We did that in 1998. As you know, the lake has silted up continuously in the last 20 years. And usually there’s a 20-year timeline when the lake requires dredging. We’ve got rowers who have to get 150 yards from shore before their oars don’t hit the bottom of the lake. It’s time to dredge.

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