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City’s ‘Gen. Patton,’ Gene C. Reid, gone, but zoo and park will live on

PAUL L. ALLEN Citizen Staff Writer

A wheeler-dealer, an arm-twister, an end-runner, a cajoler, a penny-pincher, a visionary, a horse trader, a Gen. Patton. Pick any one or combination of those terms and you’ve got a pretty fair handle on Gene C. Reid, a former director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department who died last week at the age of 86.

He was all those things and more, said friends and longtime acquaintances who admired – and were sometimes dismayed at – his free-wheeling style of public administration.

It was Mr. Reid who saw to it that Tucson had a zoo – even though elected officials were somewhat startled to learn of its existence after the fact. It had its beginnings when Tucsonans donated a couple of peacocks to Mr. Reid for placement at then-Randolph Park.

The menagerie was immediately popular, and soon grew to include other donated critters – baby chicks, Easter ducks, rescued javelina, goats, burros, hogs, sheep, a pair of tame deer and even a Texas longhorn.

When a local petting zoo offered its baby male elephant, Sabu, for sale, Mr. Reid launched a campaign for donations, going on the radio, presenting slide shows and arm-twisting ”every club in town.”

Soon, Sabu was a star attraction at the zoo.

However, because there was no ”official” zoo, there was no official zoo budget. Food for the animals was purchased through ”operating expenses.”

Because there was no zoo budget, Mr. Reid never had to explain how two kangaroos from Australia came to be part of the operation.

Though never officially acknowledged, word had it that the transportation was arranged by the Air Force in exchange for some palm trees, grown in the park’s nursery, that nicely improved the landscape at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Lack of budget never thwarted Mr. Reid, said Michael Flint, the current general curator at Reid Park Zoo.

”I can remember when we were first getting started (with the zoo),” he said. ”It was the first time I’d used third-hand lumber to build barn stalls. He knew how to stretch a penny.

”I was always in awe of his ability to get things done. He was quite a man.”

Joel Valdez, University of Arizona senior vice president for business affairs, who served as Tucson city manager during part of Mr. Reid’s tenure, said, ”I called him the Gen. Patton of the city. He could get the job done.

”He was a public servant personified,” Valdez said. ”He always had a twinkle in his eye to do something for the good of the city. I never saw him do anything for his own aggrandizement.”

Mr. Reid was born Dec. 2, 1912, in Seattle, moving first to California with his family, and then to Tucson in 1924. He attended Miles, University Heights, Roskruge and Tucson High schools here before attending the University of Arizona from 1932 to 1936, where he studied horticulture.

He worked three years at the Pima County Recorder’s Office and for a year with the Tucson Police Department before joining the family business, Rancho Palos Verdes.

The business was founded by his father, Maurice, to grow dates, citrus and tropical plants on the Northwest Side.

Mr. Reid became city parks supervisor in 1947, when – he recalled in a 1988 interview – the department consisted of six or seven men, one lawn mower and a broken-down garbage truck.

There were eight city parks at the time, the largest of which was Randolph Park, bordered roughly by East Broadway and East 22nd Street to the north and south, and South Alvernon Way and South Country Club Road to the east and west.

A rudimentary golf course brought complaints from park neighbors, because a crew of about 30 men (more often than not, city prisoners) had to water it by hand each morning. The neighbors lamented to city officials that Mr. Reid’s watering crews caused water pressure to drop at their homes.

The innovative parks director solved that problem by creating first one, and then a second lake from which irrigation water could be pumped.

Former City Councilman Robert Royal said in a subsequent interview that Reid once boasted to him that had he not been forced to get council permission to extend a water line under a street, Royal and the other council members likely would not even have been aware of the lake.

Mr. Reid had the first park bandshell erected, creating the earthen amphitheater with loads of earth hauled from basement construction projects at the University of Arizona, and the shell itself from surplus pipe and canvas swapped to D-M for some unnamed consideration – probably more trees.

By the time Mr. Reid retired as parks director in 1978, the number of city parks had grown more than tenfold to 84, totaling about 2,500 acres, with 18 swimming pools and three golf courses, a zoo and an annual budget nearing $9 million.

After his retirement, the city voted to rename Randolph Park in his honor. Mayor Lewis C. Murphy told the council: ”Mr. Gene Reid has worked for the people of the city of Tucson in excess of 33 years . . . he took a barren piece of desert and he developed it physically into a garden flowerland of significant value to this community.”

Mr. Reid served on the boards of Beacon Foundation, Salvation Army, YMCA Camp and Metropolitan Youth.

He was a member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, American Public Works Association, National Shade Tree Conference (which presented him with an award of merit), National Recreation & Parks Association, Arizona Parks and Recreation Association (which he served as president), Arizona Outdoor Recreation Coordinating Committee and the Pima County Fair Commission.

He married Shirley May Dawson on Sept. 8, 1951. His hobbies included experimental horticulture, fishing, photography and music.

A memorial service was scheduled at 11 a.m. today at East Lawn Palms Chapel, with Pastor Sharon Ragland officiating.

Survivors include his wife, Shirley; three daughters, Pam Whitehead, Debra Zenz and Lee Reid; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

The family suggests remembrances to the Salvation Army or Reid Park Zoo.

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