Published On: Wed, Jan 10th, 2018

Mickey Gomez: Life After Retirement

By Dale King

For the city of Boca Raton, 2018 will be the first year since the mid-1980s that Mickey Gomez is not somehow connected with the Parks & Recreation Department.

The 33-year municipal employee who headed the city’s P&R division for nearly 28 years retired just before the end of 2017. The New Orleans native known for his affable, unassuming manner joined a number of senior officials several years ago when he put his name on the list for upcoming retirement.

Gomez, who turns 65 in March, spent the last few weeks saying goodbye to the many colleagues he’s worked with over the years. No small number of tears were shed as he shared handshakes and slaps on the back with folks at parks, ballfields, tennis courts, swimming pools and libraries, which in Boca Raton are under the jurisdiction of Parks & Rec.

The veteran recreation boss said he plans to stay on to assist his successor, Michael Kalvort, who has held similar positions in Virginia Beach, Va., and Chesapeake, Va. he already has several Florida connections. He has degrees from the University of Florida and Nova Southeastern University and ran the parks department in Cape Coral on the Gulf coast.

Fran Mainella, the first female director of the National Park Service, stands with her friend, Mickey Gomez, at his retirement party.

“I do miss it,” said Gomez during a post-retirement interview. He recalled the recent goodbye party sponsored by the city, one that drew about 200 people to the Spanish River Library – a facility built during his watch. “The Spanish River High School Band played the National Anthem and two Florida State University fight songs.”

Also on hand was Fran Mainella, the first female director of the National Park Service who was a friend and source of information and resources while he was department head. “We also served on a couple of national boards. I felt very honored that she attended.”

Mayor Susan Haynie presented him with a proclamation telling how Gomez had turned Boca’s rec division into “one of the most respected and admired Parks & Recreation departments in Florida and in the country.”

The retiring parks boss said his interest in recreation goes back to his youth. “I was always into parks and recreation. I would spend my days in the parks and got into trouble for getting home late.”

Though the ex-recreation boss was born in New Orleans, he didn’t stay long. “My father was a university professor who taught economics” and spent time teaching at universities in Latin America and South America as well as the United States.

“I attended three secondary schools,” said Mickey. “I spent a year of junior high school in Queens, two years in Monterey, Mexico and a year in Bethesda, Md. At the time, my father was working at the World Bank in Washington, D.C.”

Mickey Gomez and his wife, Bonnie, at his retirement party.

Though he hoped to stay in Mexico, the recreation director-in-the-making went on to attend Louisiana State University where he earned a master’s degree in Parks & Recreation Administration in 1977.

Gomez didn’t waste much time moving into the P&R arena, with some impetus from his dad. “My father said, ‘This seems like the field for you.’ It was great. I really got into it. I started working at camps in Baton Rouge.”

He served as Assistant Parks and Recreation Director in West Baton Rouge Parish for two years, then moved on to Lafourche Parish just south of New Orleans, where he became the small community’s first Parks & Recreation Director.

“We built an amazing evacuation center in Lafourche Parish,” he said, one that included a community center, gym, library and senior center. “It was open for weddings and parties; there was a French food festival. The queen of the French food festival would go on to Washington, D.C.”

“We lived and died on weddings and bingo,” he said. Food events were also held throughout the year under tents set up on the grounds. They featured regional food specialties – fish, crab and shrimp among them. All the money went to the Parks & Recreation Department.”

Gomez also wrote land and water conservation grants.

“I got a thrill seeing kids having a good time,” he admitted. The idea of doing that year-round in a place like Boca Raton caught his interest. And there were other influences, too.

City Manager Leif Ahnell with Mickey Gomez at his retirement party.

“While I was working in Louisiana, I saw an ad for the deputy recreation director job in Boca. My brother had just gotten a job in Boca at IBM. And around the late 1980s, the oil and shrimp industries crashed and a lot of people were leaving. There wasn’t much money for parks and recreation.”

Jim Rutherford, Boca’s first P&R director, hired Gomez as his assistant, and he moved to the top job 9 ½ years later.

Perhaps the toughest task Gomez faced in his nearly 28 years as recreation chief was cutting staff and realigning services for the Great Recession around 2008.

“We had to cut 156 positions and reduce the budget by $5.2 million,” he said in grim recollection. “We managed to do it without people noticing, but it bothered me and it bothered the employees.”

The city opened the Spanish River Library around that time, but it was done without hiring any additional staff, Gomez noted. Library service hours had to be rearranged so both city facilities were not closed at the same time.

City Manager Leif Ahnell has said it took a decade for all services and personnel levels in Boca Raton to get back to normal.

Mayor Susan Haynie presents Mickey Gomez with a proclamation at his retirement party.

In addition to the party at Spanish River Library, Gomez, was also honored at a meeting of the Federation of Boca Raton Homeowner Associations. One of the speakers noted that the budget of the P&R Department increased from $6.2 million when Gomez came on board to $50 million when he stepped down. The number of employees rose over that period from 250 to about 800.

“The mayor spoke, and read a list of all projects that were completed while I was the director.” Among them were Patch Reef Park, Sugar Sand Park, the Swim & Racquet Center and all the neighborhood “pocket parks.”

As he left office, Gomez praised the city staff for assisting him through the years: City Managers Donna Dreska and Ahnell; Deputy City Manager George Brown; Assistant City Manager Mike Woika, all mayors he’s served under – from Bill Smith to Susan Haynie – and all city council members.

With retirement here, Mickey and wife, Bonnie, have just purchased a house in Ocala where they want to have horses and farm animals. “She wants an old, retired horse,” Mickey joked.

But they also own a condo on Spanish River Boulevard in Boca, and look forward to spending time with their kids, son Mickey and daughter, Lisa, who has two daughters of her own, age 5 and 2 ½.
Despite his departure, Mickey still feels a Boca tug. He said he made sure the new P&R director “has my cell number.”

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