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| Monday, Sep 7, 2020
norm phillips
Norm Phillips stands in the front yard of the Phillips family farmhouse in Prophetstown, Illinois, in August 2020.

 

Norm Phillips is back in northern Illinois on the family farm where he grew up, retiring this spring after 37 eventful years as a superintendent with the Los Angeles County Parks & Recreation Department, mostly at Hart Park, and most recently at Castaic Lake.

One of three founders of the annual Hart of the West Powwow in 1994, Phillips also helped establish the annual Pet Fair (now known as Bow-Wows & Meows) and other family-oriented activities at the park. He also served as the county’s liaison to the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society’s Board of Directors.

“There’s a lot to do on the farm ’cause it’s just kind of fallin’ apart,” said Phillips, 63, on a recent call from Prophetstown, pop. 2,100, about 130 miles due west of Chicago, nestled on the south bank of the winding Rock River, and just a wide spot on State Highway 78 with no apparent need for traffic signals.

Phillips’ mother is 87 now, and needed a hand around the spread, he said.

Most of the family farm’s 200 or so acres are leased to a neighbor who’s growing soybeans and corn, but his mom’s farmhouse and a few outbuildings could use some attention, he said.

Not unlike the condition William S. Hart Regional County Park was in when Phillips arrived there as superintendent in 1986.

norm phillips

By the time he was promoted and reassigned as superintendent of the Castaic Lake State Recreation Area three decades later, Hart Park’s facilities and programs were vastly improved. And now, with Phillips’ return to Prophetstown, the family farm is once again in good hands.

“Norm is the greatest single asset Hart Park has ever had,” said longtime friend Laurene Weste, also a longtime Santa Clarita City Councilmember, as well as president of the nonprofit Friends of Hart Park and a board member of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.

“Because he’s a Midwest farm boy, managed cattle and grew corn, and loved animals a lot, he was a perfect fit for Hart Park,” Weste said.

After Santa Clarita incorporated as a city on December 15, 1987, Phillips was instrumental in helping the new city establish its own parks system. He assisted on the interview panel that chose Anaheim Parks & Recreation Assistant Director Jeff Kolin as Santa Clarita’s first Parks & Recreation director and served as a liaison between the county and city.

“Norm helped the city with our parks for the first 18 months while we got all our own people together,” Weste said.
“He has always been very forward-thinking. For a farm boy, that is one intelligent man.”

Phillips had started his parks & rec career in August 1984 as L.A. County’s recreation services supervisor for the city of West Hollywood. After three decades at Hart Park, he helmed operations for the county at Castaic Lake from October 2016 until he retired at the end of March this year.

norm phillips castaic lake

Castaic Lake in the Castaic Lake State Recreation Area. Photo courtesy of Castaic Lake’s social media account.

While at Hart, Phillips worked closely with L.A. County and Santa Clarita city officials, as well as Friends of Hart Park, the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society and other nonprofit groups on many site improvements, special events and ongoing programs designed to benefit the park and the community.

Among the many highlights: remodeling the Hart Museum; opening the gift shop; building Hart Hall, the animal pens and the bison shed; launching and developing the annual “Silents Under the Stars” fundraiser; co-founding the annual Hart of the West Pow-Wow; and hosting the Bow-Wows & Meows pet adoption fair and the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival.

norm phillips

Photographer Ken Lubas presented Norm Phillips with this print in October 2016 in recognition of Phillips’ dedication to the Hart of the West Powwow through the years. Phillips was one of three founders of the powwow; the others were Marylina Schultz and the late Bill Kimmel, aka Standing Bear.

“It was a real pleasure working with the Friends because everything we did there needed to have a 501(c)(3) group to be funneling the money through,” Phillips said. “The Friends were been instrumental in and supportive of everything that goes on there, and that’s a big, big plus.”

Weste said Phillips absolutely deserved his promotion in 2016 and that he went on to do a wonderful job as Castaic Lake’s superintendent. But she also thinks he was most at home during his years as Hart Park superintendent.

“Norm loved its history, knew who all the people were, where everything was,” she said. “He could have been Bill Hart’s son. He knew that 250-acre park like it was his own ranch. And he helped the (SCV) Historical Society with everything we did (at Heritage Junction). Even after he went up to Castaic, if we needed a hand with Hart Park history, we could just call Norm.”

norm phillips

Flashback to 1986; Hart Hall Becomes Park’s ‘Economic Engine’
“Hart Park was just dirt and wood corrals and a few little sheds,” Weste said, so she and a group of other community leaders founded the nonprofit support group Friends of Hart Park in the early ’80s, a few years before Phillips rolled up.

“The only things at Hart Park when I started there in 1986 were the barn animals and the museum, some campgrounds in the back and the community gardens,” Phillips said. “It was kind of a boring job because there wasn’t a whole lot there.”

Phillips said the park’s condition was partly due to how county officials interpreted William S. Hart’s last will and testament, which Weste says Phillips knows by heart.

Upon his death in 1946 at age 81, Hart willed his 10,000 square-foot Spanish Colonial Revival-style mansion and 265-acre Horseshoe Ranch in Newhall to Los Angeles County, with the provision that the property would be converted into a public park and museum.

norm phillips

Hart’s will also prohibited “commercialization” of the property, a provision Phillips said was so strictly interpreted by county officials over the years, that the park suffered from lack of funding.

“Not one building in Hart Park wasn’t leaking, nothing wasn’t in need of desperate repairs,” Weste said of the park’s condition in 1986. “Norm systematically did wonderful things to bring that park up to par.”

“We got a couple of state grants that built the pole barn and upgraded some of the air conditioning in the museum,” Phillips said of the initial park improvements on his watch.

“(Former Santa Clarita City Councilmember and Mayor) Jo Ann Darcy asked me what the best thing I could do for the facility, and I told her, ‘Get us some money for the animal pen enclosure,'” Phillips said.

norm phillips

Walt Disney donated his herd of American bison to Hart Park in 1962.

“Lord knows that (project) was a beast in itself,” he said. “It was supposed to be like a couple of hundred thousand to build, but it blossomed into a couple million ’cause we had so many different departments involved. But it is now state-of-the-art, huge, and I’m glad it ended up the way it is.”

“Norm knew how to keep animals healthy” from his years growing up on the farm, said Weste, who also assisted in fundraising for the animal pen.

“He would take care of the sheep and the cows when they got sick,” she said. “He loved all the birds, including the flock of turkeys we had to help wrangle once when some got loose. And Norm and I worked together on creating a better environment for the bison.”

(The herd of American Bison at Hart Park is descended from the bison donated by Walt Disney after the animals were used in a movie filmed in the area. Bison are indigenous to the Great Plains, not the Santa Clarita Valley.)

“Now it’s just a beautiful facility, safe steel overhead for the big animals, lots of beautiful areas for the smaller animals — just a different place,” Weste said. “Norm made the difference.”

norm phillips

From there, Phillips said, “We saw the possibilities and it started to blossom. We had a great County Counsel Helen Parker, who got us a re-interpretation of (Hart’s) will that allowed us to actually do some fundraising at the facility, as long as all the money stayed at the facility. She should get the accolades for this.

“So Laurene and I were at the emergency center during the January 1994 earthquake — the county made the pole barn into an emergency center,” he said. “We looked at it and said, ‘Wow, this could be a real hall, you know?’ So, after that, we got some Prop. A money to enclose it and made Hart Hall. And that’s been Hart Park’s economic engine ever since.”

norm phillips

2017 Bill Hart Legacy Awards
At the July 2017 “Silents Under the Stars” gala, L.A. County and Santa Clarita officials honored Phillips for his 30 years of exemplary service at Hart Park.

“Norm has been the backbone of (L.A. County) Parks and Recreation,” said Kathryn Barger, Supervisor for the county’s 5th District, which includes the SCV, that night. “He is more than an employee, and when you have a passion for what you do, it shows. His vision and leadership engrain the spirit of Bill Hart.”

Weste, then the city’s mayor pro-tem and president of Friends of Hart Park, also presented Phillips with one of three Bill Hart Legacy Award — branding irons hand-forged with William S. Hart’s “WSH” logo.

“He could have been Bill Hart’s son, for all the work he’s done around here,” Weste said then.

“They took the branding iron that Hart actually had so we could have the William S. Hart brand,” Phillips said.

“Norm was so thrilled with his Bill Hart Legacy Award,” Weste said. “We had it mounted on cedar and with little handmade hooks and there’s a nice plaque on it thanking him for really helping save Hart Park. Norm got the second one; the first went to Michael D. Antonovich,” Barger’s predecessor, who’d retired as 5th District Supervisor the previous November.

“They had the third (branding iron) made for Sherron Blowers (organizer of “Silents Under the Stars”) — so well-deserved,” Phillips said.

norm phillips

Filming at Hart Park
“What’s my legacy at Hart Park? I guess that we were able to raise money, have the Cowboy Festival, bring in weddings, bring in movies,” Phillips said, with characteristic modesty.

“The only thing I never got was the ability to film there.”

Phillips said L.A. County officials say allowing film productions to shoot on location in Hart Park would cross the line into commercialism that other activities allowed there do not.

But he disagrees.

William S. Hart stars in "The Toll Gate" as Black Deering, along with his pinto paint, Fritz, in 1920. Courtesy SCV Historical Society.

William S. Hart stars in “The Toll Gate” as Black Deering, along with his pinto paint, Fritz, in 1920. Courtesy SCV Historical Society.

“Hart was an actor, a film star, and that’s not the way he meant it according to one of the volunteers who actually lived with Hart when he was on the property; he knew Hart very well,” Phillips said. “What Hart meant was that he didn’t want anything to be commercialized or endorsed, like ‘William S. Hart Sponsored by Coca-Cola,’ because his name was big at that time.

“I tried to get county (counsel) to understand, but they’re pretty much not going to budge any further on allowing more flexibility of raising more money,” he said. They weren’t getting any support from two state attorneys general (John Van De Kamp and Dan Lundgren) so they dropped it.

“But the money that has been raised in the Hall has helped; it paid for the museum’s new roof and HVAC system and pays a lot toward running the museum,” Phillips said. “So it is a good thing there’s a revenue stream for the park that the county can’t touch.”

norm phillips

A path along the Rock River in Prophetstown, Illinois.

Home for the Summer, Back for the Winter
“Norm had found a nice home out here, tried to get his mom to come out, but she wanted to stay where she’d always been,” Weste said.

Phillips had been considering retiring early and heading back to Prophetstown for some time; the timing of L.A. County Public Health’s first “Safer at Home” order on March 19 helped seal it. He officially retired eight days later on March 27, started packing, and as soon as it was safe, hit the road for the roughly 2,000-mile drive from Santa Clarita to his hometown.

“Named ‘The Most Arts-Friendly Small Town in Illinois’ by the Illinois Art Alliance Foundation in 2005, Prophetstown always has something happening in this small and progressive community,” reads the town’s official website.

Under the circumstances, during the lockdown, there was no big retirement party before Phillips left. But Supervisor Barger made special note of his legacy in an email to SCV News:

“Norm leaves his role as Superintendent of Castaic Lake with a legacy of community service and commitment to the Santa Clarita Valley,” Barger said. “His dedication and time at both William S. Hart Park and Castaic Lake will leave these local landmarks better for generations to come.”

And Phillips’ ties to the Santa Clarita Valley remain strong. “I plan to get involved volunteering-wise,” he said. Weste wants him to join the Friends of Hart Park board, “’cause we love you and we need you,” she told him. And he said he plans to apply for a board position with the SCV Historical Society, “and maybe the Friends of Castaic Lake.”

Thanks to remote video conferencing, Phillips says he can still be a board member from Prophetstown. But if pandemic-related restrictions allow, the self-described “snowbird” also plans to be back in California during the winter.

norm phillips

Norm Phillips, with crops in the background, on the family farm in Prophetstown, Illinois, August 2020.

“I will definitely not be here in Illinois ’cause I’m not going to put up with these winters,” he said.

Which is just fine with just about everyone who knows him, Weste said: “There will never be another Norm Phillips that will do as much or be as beloved as he is. There is nobody who doesn’t respect and love that man.”

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