Amy Hamilton probably knows more current and former Bedford kids than anyone. She was a volunteer coach in high school and a Recreation Department summer camp counselor in the late 1980s. She joined the department staff as program coordinator in 1989 and succeeded Frank Bauman as head of the department in 2003.
Friday is Hamilton’s last day as director, and on the threshold of retirement, she concluded that after so many years, kids haven’t changed. “In our programs, they’re the same,” she said.
Some of those programs have changed, as Hamilton and her department try to be sensitive to trends and requests.
Robin Steele, chair of the Recreation Commission, said Hamilton did “a wonderful job finding programs for the town that fit everyone’s needs, and is also very detailed and knowledgeable in everything she does. She has been a huge asset to the town and will be missed by everyone. I know I will miss her personally.”
Added Ron Richter, a recreation commissioner throughout Hamilton’s career as director, “Amy has created inclusive programs to make sure that if you are a resident of Bedford and you want to get involved in some type of activity there is an opportunity. She has demonstrated such incredible passion for the people of Bedford for so long it’s hard to think of a future in recreation where she is not involved, but she has left an incredible roadmap for those that follow her.”
Hamilton is proud of the range and response of the Recreation Department, and its groundbreaking use of technology.
“We were the first recreation department to have a website, to offer online registration,” she said. “We were the first to take credit cards. We were way ahead of the curve.”
She marveled, “What a difference technology makes,” recalling evening program registrations in Town Hall for which some parents would arrive with lawn chairs around 3 o’clock. Now more than 90 percent of registration is electronic.
Not to mention the email lists – much easier than the dozens of telephone calls Hamilton would make to registrants when there was an unexpected cancellation.
Sports used to be predominant in recreation programs; now they are part of a broader agenda, with many more serious athletes opting for club teams, Hamilton commented. For example, competitive sports are beginning at a younger age “because that’s what people want.”
Meanwhile, STEM programs are “unbelievably popular now.” The impetus came from parents, because “it’s what kids are interested in.”
Theater programs have ups and downs but are consistently part of the repertoire. “I laughed the first time a resident said he wanted to run a chess program – and we had a waitlist.”
The department’s new program mantra is, “See if it sticks.” And Hamilton was quick to admit, “Things ‘stuck’ that we never thought would be popular. We have to be receptive – we don’t know it all.”
Longevity varies, but Hamilton emphasizes that perpetuity isn’t a criterion for success. “Nothing lasts forever,” she pointed out.
For almost 30 years the department-sponsored Friday night ski trips to Wachusett Mountain – as many as eight buses a week. It’s gone now, but was nevertheless “a huge success, with a million memories.”
Then there was the youth gathering space in Town Center called The Corner, which attracted scores of sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders.
“I still consider that a success,” Hamilton said, even though the service faded away several years ago because of changing demographics and culture. “That place was hopping for about 10 years. We had a great staff. It didn’t fail; it served a purpose for its time.”
One template that has flourished for 45 years is the summer day camp. The program began in 1977, engineered with the department by resident Ilsa Gottlieb and a fellow teacher, “Petey” Palaza.
Hamilton said the “core program” – swim lessons, different age cohorts, activities led by teenage and young adult counselors – has really changed little up to its current iteration as Summer Adventures.
Kids Club is another multi-generational institution. “We had to convince the selectmen about school-age child care back in 1993,” she recalled. Hamilton spent all summer on personal time setting up the program, which since then has served hundreds of families.
The director observed that residents take the symbiotic relationship between the schools and Rec as a given, but that isn’t the case in many other towns. “We’ve always used the schools for programs,” she said. “We rely on that relationship.” Indeed, when Lane and Davis Schools were expanded, the gymnasiums were oversized to accommodate the community.
“We share a population – their kids are our kids,” Hamilton observed. “And it’s just beneficial to the community.”
There’s a common denominator that connects every Recreation Department staff member and commissioner spanning the past half-century: Springs Brook Park.
The hybrid nature of the facility – “Is it a pond? Is it a pool?” – is an interdepartmental challenge in the town, said Hamilton, who swam in the pool with neighborhood friends almost a half-century ago. The issues have ranged from mechanical problems and water turbidity to financial viability and staff shortages, resulting in shorter operating hours.
Private swim clubs have always been a draw, Hamilton said, and the choice depends on personal priorities. “What are our positives? We have a beach, but some parents complain about sand in the car,” she reported. “I still think of the renovations as relatively new, but the spray park has been here since 2006.”
The facility is an imperative for the Summer Adventures program, she stressed. There’s no longer a market for public swim lessons, but those are a huge part of the day-camp program.
Hamilton said that although hiring staff has had peaks and valleys (now there’s a nationwide shortage of lifeguards), volunteerism has always been a key component of recreation programming. “We haven’t seen any dropoff,” she said.
Among the hundreds of volunteers, she made it a point to mention Richter, who has served on the Recreation Commission for more than 20 years, several as chair, and has been “a huge support. I can call Ron any time for anything.”
She also mentioned the devotion of the Soccer Commission. “They’re great workers – sometimes their meetings last until 1 a.m.” Also, Hamilton noted the dedication to Springs Brook Park by the late Carl Silvestrone when he was with the Department of Public Works.
Hamilton lauded all of the department’s “great employees over the years. Without them, there’s nothing. We have a great time and we challenge each other – even though it’s Rec, it’s still challenging.” She added, “I miss Frank – I wish he was here,” Bauman, Bedford’s only other recreation director, died in 2013.
“Amy Hamilton’s more than four decades of dedication to the people of Bedford is a rarity and represents an incredible example of public service,” said Town Manager Sarah Stanton. “Her positive impacts and legacy will be felt for years to come.”
The retiring director wears her gregariousness like a badge of honor. “You know that Cheers theme song, ‘Where Everybody Knows Your Name?’ That’s my theme song – and I love it.” Indeed, her town email address was first-name only. “I love talking to people.” She said her son Matthew would roll his eyes whenever they went into a local store.
Hamilton said she doesn’t have a “fixed plan” for retirement, but will be available as a resource to the department staff. College classes are one possibility, she said.
“She has overseen and evolved and created so many programs in the years that I have known her,” Richter affirmed. “She is a jewel in the town of Bedford.”