Before he ran the U.S. National Park Service, before he directed California’s parks and recreation department, before he was general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District, William Penn Mott, Jr., created Children’s Fairyland, while he was still superintendent of parks for the City of Oakland.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Mott, who died in 1992 at age 82, but as the longest-serving executive director of Fairyland, I have certainly heard enough stories about him to understand that he was one very special visionary. I am ashamed to say that I am only now getting around to reading the wonderful biography Prophet of the Parks: The Story of William Penn Mott, Jr., by Mary Ellen Butler.

Born in New York to a father who loved camping, Mott was raised as a Quaker, with that religion’s social and humanitarian goals. He put those goals into practice in his career. He was passionate about educating the public about the need to protect nature (he called this “interpretation”). He also broke down racial and gender discrimination by hiring women and members of minority groups and then promoting them into leadership positions.

This was a man who, in one of his first parks-management positions, ordered the removal of a sign that read “Do Not Walk on the Grass.” Instead, he replaced the grass with a heartier strain that could be walked on. Mott wanted everyone to feel welcome at “his” parks.

During Mott’s incredible 60-year career, Butler writes, he was on “a first-name basis with presidents, governors, members of Congress and titans of industry.” His travels took him to Costa Rica, Australia and New Zealand to assist these countries in establishing American-style national park systems.

And yet, whenever he was asked to name the top achievements of his professional life, Mott apparently never hesitated. The creation of Children’s Fairyland—the nation’s first storybook theme park, and Walt Disney’s inspiration for Disneyland—was always at or near the top of his list.

The book shares a great story that I’d never heard. While he was raising money to build Fairyland, Mott took time out to learn what kids were reading. He wanted to know whether those stories could inspire some of the park’s sets. His search took him to the children’s room of the Oakland Public Library—many times. Years later, the library’s director encountered Mott at a social function and revealed that he’d assigned special guards to him. He’d feared that Mott was hanging around the children’s section for less-than-honorable reasons.

Lots of times at the park, I find myself wondering “What would Bill Mott do?” In refurbishing our sets or creating new attractions, we try to follow his vision of “no straight lines” and “a surprise around every corner.”

One chapter of the book outlines the six Mott leadership principles, and I’m happy to say that we’re doing our best to run “his” Fairyland by these principles. Here they are:

  1. Be visionary. Guide today’s decisions by tomorrow’s reality.
  2. Think creatively: Dare to try new and controversial ideas.
  3. Be aggressive: Market and sell a quality product.
  4. Share the credit: Hire good people and let them do their jobs.
  5. Educate your constituency, then trust it to make an informed choice.
  6. Never give up: Hold on to your dreams until they come true.

It’s remarkable to many of us local history buffs that there is no memorial in Oakland that recognizes the achievements of William Penn Mott, Jr., during his tenure here from 1946 to 1962. Think about all he moved to fruition: the Oakland Zoo; the Rotary Nature Center in Lakeside Park; Children’s Fairyland.

He also oversaw the steady growth and development of the city’s parks and open spaces. Mott personally redesigned Mosswood Park at Broadway and MacArthur: he removed overgrowth; opened up grassy areas; installed tennis courts, baseball diamonds and other sports facilities; and diverted the creek into a culvert. And that was just one urban park! One environmental writer estimated that Mott had a hand in creating, planning and administering more acres of parkland and open space than any other American in history.

William Penn Mott was known as the “idea-a-minute” man. We are so grateful that Fairyland was one of his great ideas. Children’s Fairyland remains a living legacy to the man who helped dream it into existence.

One Response

  1. Ann Hyde

    What a pleasure to be at Fairyland 3 days a week and be part of this wonderful dream. Thanks CJ

    Reply

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