Town mourns ‘Mr. Park District’
BY IRV LEAVITT STAFF WRITER
Edward J. Rudolph, who trained some of the greatest speed skaters in U.S. history in Northbrook, and was the most significant force behind the Northbrook Park District’s development, died Dec. 24. He was 92.
"Mr. Northbrook Park District" died in Whitehall North Convalescent Home in Deerfield weeks after the death of Lauretta, his wife of 67 years.
Northbrook became known as "The Speed-skating Capital of the World" after Anne Henning and Diane Holum, two skaters trained by Rudolph, won gold medals in the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. In later Olympics, another Rudolph protege, Leah Poulos, won three silver medals. Rudolph’s son Edward Jr. skated in two Olympics.
"Ed was an inspiration to all the people that he came in contact with, whether it was through skating or any other sport," said Nate Blatchford, father of Neil Blatchford, who skated and just missed medaling in two Olympics.
Nate Blatchford served with Rudolph on the Northbrook Park Board of Commissioners for six years. Rudolph served from 1947 through 1975, longer than any other commissioner, and served several years as board president.
"If Ed had never been a park commissioner, we probably would have 50 percent, maybe 30 percent, of what we have today in the park district," said Ken Thiel, who served on the Park Board from 1959 through 1965.
Rudolph, who owned a landscaping company, often contributed his own labor and that of his employees to the park district. "A lot of people didn’t realize it then, but we were really operating the Park District on a shoestring," Thiel said.
Current Park District Commissioner Oscar Dahl said that long before he himself was elected to the board in 1987, he remembers Rudolph coming to a Northbrook Civic Association meeting and asking for help.
"He said, ‘There’s a subdivision (Salceda) going in at Shermer and Willow, and we can get all those trees there for $5,000, and my guys will put ‘em in all over for free,’ " Dahl recalled. "There had been a nursery there. We gave him the money, and you know, you can go to Wood Oaks (Green Park) now, and all those pines came from that."
In 1973, Rudolph also made a deal with Techny’s Society of the Divine Word when it closed all its nurseries. He and five workers dug up all the trees and bushes and replanted them in Village Green, West and Wood Oaks Green parks.
After a 1958 referendum that funded purchase of Techny land for Meadowhill Park and Northbrook Junior High School, Rudolph made a deal that made it possible to construct the park district’s first swimming pool. He convinced School District 28 to share the cost of a sewer line to serve both the school and the park. Rudolph surveyed the property, and dug the trench for the sewer with his own backhoe.
Rudolph and his men also designed and built the bike track, or velodrome, at Meadowhill. In 1960, they finished a literally dirt-cheap oiled, compacted-earth surface that served cyclists for decades, before giving way to more expensive modern surfaces. "We got bushel-barrels full of letters (asking) about how we could build a track that good so cheap," Rudolph said during an interview last May.
Rudolph was also the driving force behind the Tower Rink, the outdoor skating rink north of the current Village Hall at 1225 Cedar Lane, and behind the first indoor skating rink at West Park, 1720 Pfingsten Road.
The Park District named the bike track the Ed Rudolph Velodrome, and later renamed Meadowhill the Ed Rudolph Park. It’s the only Northbrook park that carries an individual’s name.
One of Rudolph’s sons, Gordie, trained on Northbrook’s bike track for the 1963 Pan Am Games, where he won three gold medals.
Former Park District Commissioner Howard Helfrich said last week that he considered Rudolph his mentor on the board, although he didn’t when he ran for his seat in 1963.
"People told me that he was using park district funds to further the aims of his kids, and I guess I ran as a reform candidate," Helfrich recalled. "After six months, I found out that it was the reverse: He was using his own funds."
Helfrich said Rudolph, when accompanying skaters to meets in Germany, learned new training methods. "He brought interval training and pulse training to the U.S.," Helfrich said.
Interval training involves staggered exercise times, and pulse training requires athletes to strive to lower their heart rates to enhance performance. "He had Anne Henning (ran) up and down the Meadowhill (toboggan slide), and all the other speed skaters, too," Helfrich said.
Rudolph invented training boards that allowed local skaters to mimic the side-to-side motions of speed skating indoors through the long off-season. He covered 4-by-8-foot plywood planks with Formica, and attached rubber bumpers to their edges.
The skaters practiced their side-to-side glide in their stocking feet. The boards inspired other versions that swept the United States.
Thiel helped Rudolph organize his personal papers before they were donated to the Northbrook Historical Society in 2001. He said last week that during the process, he learned that Rudolph had rejected a chance to be appointed to the U.S. Olympic Committee. "It was too political," Thiel said last week. "Ed had to be up-front and honest. He was that type of individual."
Rudolph grew up skating on flooded farm ponds and pastures of his native Glencoe. He played four years of football at New Trier High School before graduating in 1927. He was a speed-skating contender for the 1932 Winter Olympics before slashing his heel with a skate during trials.
He met his future wife while skating at the Hubbard Woods rink in 1931. They married in 1934, and bought a 528-square-foot house on the south side of Shermer Road, east of Waukegan Road. The couple expanded the house themselves, starting by jacking it up and digging out a basement with shovels.
Rudolph flooded the front yard in winter to give his kids a place to skate. Neighborhood youths joined in, leading to Rudolph and his wife founding the Northbrook Skating Club in 1953. After the Tower Rink was founded, the Rudolphs’ front-yard rock and flower gardens made it a neighborhood showplace.
Services for Rudolph were held Saturday in Northbrook’s Grace Lutheran Church, where he and his wife had been charter members.
He is survived by sons Gordon and Edward Jr., his daughter Sally (Tom) Adkisson, 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the North Shore chapter of the American Cancer Society, designated for pancreatic cancer research, 820 Davis St., Evanston IL 60201, or to Grace Lutheran Church, 2245 Walters Ave., Northbrook IL 60062.