Oglebay employees recount memories

WHEELING — It was the 1960s when three long-time Oglebay Park employees were hired for rather simple tasks in different areas of the park. Now more than five decades later, each continues to fill essential roles that have come to help make Oglebay one of the most loved treasures of the Ohio Valley.

In addition to their more than 50 years of service to the park system — Harry Himrod, Festival of Lights supervisor, James Keefer, maintenance technician and Gunther “Rick” Hempelman, large equipment operator, all share a love of the park.

During the park’s annual employee appreciation summer picnic last week, Wheeling Park Commission President and CEO Steve Hilliard said it is exceptional individuals like these men who work tirelessly to maintain the beauty and integrity of Oglebay and Wheeling parks.

“It’s my pleasure on behalf of our entire team to honor these three incredibly dedicated team members,” Hilliard said. He went on to say while these men have always worked “somewhat behind the scenes,” the result of their efforts is always in the foreground.

“What they do for us really makes a huge, huge difference. Three folks who have been with us for over 50 years — what an incredible testament to their dedication,” Hilliard added. He presented each with an engraved gold pocket watch and a certificate of appreciation for all their many years’ service.

• Himrod, who has nearly 54 years of service, said the park has always been a way of life for him. He said it all began when the golf pro at that time asked him (as a teenager) if he wanted a job at the park. He said his response to the golf pro was, “When do you want me to start,” with the response from the supervisor being, “right now,” Himrod commented. He said the rest was history, as he went on to work a number of jobs around the park over the years. He said for about a 15-year period he worked at Wheeling Park as well.

“I was just a person they sent all over the place,” Himrod said. He said he would go wherever he was needed and that he has learned a lot of technical skills over the years while working in different areas of the park.

While most of Himrod’s efforts are now centered around the ongoing production of the Winter Festival of Lights, he is often called upon to help with other tasks. Whether it’s removing a tree from a roadway or operating a crane truck, or fixing a lawn mower, he gives his best effort to get the job done. Himrod said the Festival of Lights has become a year-round job with a tremendous amount of maintenance of the more than 70 displays and countless strings of lights. “What goes up — 90 percent must come down,” Himrod commented. He said one of the more exciting things for him has been being witness to all the additions of the park and the expansion of the Festival of Lights over the past five decades.

• Keefer, a maintenance technician for Wilson Lodge who has more than 50 years of service, said his journey with the park began as a teenager making 60 cents an hour working at the Pine Room refreshment stand. He said within a few years he began delivering snacks and other stock to the various refreshment stands around the park.

“I’ve worked on the golf course. In college I used to mow fairways and then I moved over to the lodge and worked at the front desk as a night auditor and I became manager at the lodge and was there for like 17 years,” Keefer said. Nearly 25 years into his employment with the park he agreed to join the maintenance team because the hours were more conducive to his schedule. Whether it’s a door lock or leaky sink, Keefer now works with about a dozen other crew members who perform the required maintenance and repairs at Wilson Lodge or any of the many cabins.

Meeting a lot of people and developing lifelong friendships is what Keefer said he continues to cherish the most. He said he enjoys talking with the staff and park guests.

“I’m a people person. I can walk up to a stranger and strike up a conversation,” he added.

• Rick Hempelman, who is now a large equipment operator for the park and has put in over 51 years, said he got his first job at Wheeling Park working as a playground monitor.

“I would clean the playground and just watch what was going on, and then I moved on to a stock boy,” Hempelman said. As the years went by he moved through a variety of job descriptions until he was drafted in 1969 to serve in the U.S. Army for two years. After returning from the military, Hempelman said he went back to work for the park system, only this time he was hired to work maintenance for Oglebay Park’s golf courses. Hempelman continues to cut the more than 100 acres around the many hilltops of Oglebay including the golf courses. He said he loves his job and working outside with nature.

“It’s fun coming to work every day. … You see something different all the time,” Hempelman said. “But when there’s thunder and lightning I head for shelter,” he added with a smile.