September 8, 2023 at 8:47pm

Elena Ferrarin

Article by Elena Ferrarin

Communications Coordinator
Northbrook Park District


Molly Hamer’s exceptional 37-year career in parks and recreation traces a direct line to the values her parents instilled in her: cherish family and treasure leisure.

“This has been such an incredible career path for me, because it’s about giving people the opportunity to choose what they want to do in their free time, with their family, in their community,” said Hamer, who retired Sept. 8 after seven years as executive director of the Northbrook Park District. “It’s been so meaningful and purposeful for me, because I believe that play and relaxation are essential components of the lives of children and adults — whether it’s sitting on a park bench, swimming, playing hockey, acting in a play or running on a trail.”

Hamer’s retirement comes in the wake of being named 2023 Professional of the Year by the Illinois Park and Recreation Association, on whose board she served from 2014 to 2016.

She is succeeded by Executive Director Chris Leiner, formerly director of parks and properties for the Northbrook Park District.

Reflecting on her time in Northbrook, Hamer said it was deeply rewarding to lead the park district’s unfailing commitment to its mission of enhancing the community through environmental, social and financial stewardship.

“With every project we do, be it a new multimillion dollar building, a playground renovation or just the purchase of Adirondack chairs for the golf course, we continue to prioritize being champions for the environment and sustainability, and study whether we can use whatever is on the cutting-edge while being fiscally responsible.”

Hamer said she’s especially proud of two major park district accomplishments in 2021: the reopening of Sportsman’s Country Club as Heritage Oaks Golf Club with a new club house and modern technology, and the opening of the net-zero energy Techny Prairie Activity Center (TPAC), which met the community’s desire for a facility with a gymnasium, indoor track and comprehensive fitness area. “TPAC is a way for people to connect not just to their own health, but to each other and nature,” she added.

A top administrator with an open-door policy, Hamer said she always endeavored to engage in consistent leadership. She will most miss the friendships she forged on the job and is especially grateful for the resilience of staff members during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were closing playgrounds and canceling programs, which was unheard of,” she recalled. “There was so much anxiety. It was a very challenging time to lead, and that’s when you lean on your colleagues and friends.”

Hamer was born and raised in Geneseo, Illinois, and spent a year in Bolivia after graduating high school. She earned a bachelor’s degree in leisure studies from the University of Illinois, whose department of recreation, sport and tourism selected her as recipient of the Joseph Bannon Practitioner Award in 2016. She later earned a master’s degree in counseling from Western Illinois University.

She started her career in parks and recreation as a recreation supervisor with the Schaumburg Park District, where she rose to superintendent of recreation in nearly 11 years. A year after having triplets in 1992, she and her husband moved to Geneseo to be closer to their families. Hamer served on the board of the Geneseo Park District for about a decade and was hired as its executive director in 2007. When the Northbrook job opened nine years later, Hamer said, she jumped at the chance to work for a district she “always had affection for.”

“I wish I could say it was all a perfect plan,” she said, “but everything simply fell into place as I was making decisions along the way.”

Hamer was “an amazing leader” for the Northbrook Park District, Board President Lisa Chalem said.

“She is a problem solver that is professional, approachable and a mentor to all. She will be missed, but we know Molly will enjoy her retirement and will always find great places to play!” Chalem said.

Hamer, who turned 65 in June, said she decided to retire after watching her husband enjoy his own retirement for the past year. The couple plan to visit U.S. national parks, including the Grand Canyon, as well as Italy and Greece starting next year.

“I love what I do, and I could keep doing it,” Hamer said, “but I realized that with all three of our adult children and two grandchildren here in the Chicago area, this is a wonderful time for us to have an active retirement together as a couple and as a family.”

She also timed her departure so she could shepherd the process of interviewing and hiring to fill senior leadership positions at the park district, following staff retirements in 2022 and the swearing in of a new board in May. “It feels good to hand off the baton at a time when, while there is still work to be done, it makes sense for the district’s upcoming initiatives,” she said. “I feel very connected to Northbrook. The community has been very welcoming, and I have loved my time here.”

Northbrook Park District Director of Recreation Eileen Loftus said Hamer has the exceptional ability to foster consensus among staff members with diverse experiences and varied goals. “Her enthusiasm and genuine interest in everyone’s ideas created an environment where every voice was valued,” Loftus said.

Hamer will leave an indelible mark on the district, Northbrook Park District Director of Golf Greg Baron said. “Molly was a driving force of support for the achievements we are now realizing,” he said. “Her impact is like a well-aimed swing that is powerful, purposeful, and destined to go the distance.”

Looking back, Hamer said, she’s thankful for having had the chance at a rewarding career in a field that provides indispensable value to people and their communities.

“We need places to gather and focus on our mental and physical health, and we need to give people an opportunity to meet each other and forge friendships,” she said. “Those connections are truly an anchor for a community.”