Remembering when NORD taught New Orleans to play ball (and swim and act and …)
During World War II, John Brechtel established the New Orleans Juvenile Sports Association to combat juvenile delinquency and provide a citywide fitness program. That program was the model for the New Orleans Recreation Department upon its creation in 1947, and Mayor deLesseps S. “Chep” Morrison appointed Brechtel to be its executive assistant director. The department offered a wide variety of programs, not only in athletics but also in such fields as theater and dance, and it became a national model.
NORD, as it has become known, was the victim of inadequate budgets that led to closed pools, dilapidated playgrounds, underpaid coaches and sharp disparities in the quality of programs and facilities in poor and affluent neighborhoods. In an attempt to turn things around, voters in 2010 overwhelmingly approved amending the Home Rule Charter to abolish NORD as a City Hall department and replace it with the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, which would be run by a public-private commission that would hire an executive director. Victor N. Richard III got that job in 2012.
- A year and a half after its creation, NORD was the subject of a photo spread in Life magazine, which hailed the program as “the most progressive in the U.S.”
- Because NORD was established when segregation was the rule, there were separate (but hardly equal) activities for white and African-American children. That ended in 1963 with a federal court order requiring that NORD programs be integrated.
- Among the participants in NORD programs was Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who started playing baseball in the Carrollton Boosters program when he was 5 and continued until he was 16.
- One of NORD’s most conspicuous activities was its theater program, which Ty Tracy led for 43 years and which has been an incubator of local talent. Among those who have worked in NORD productions were the actor Bryan Batt; the musical-comedy composer Fred Palmisano; Danny Rubio, a composer and former tuba player and musical director of the Dukes of Dixieland; Peggy Scott Laborde, a WYES-TV producer; Tommy Capps, a Broadway production stage manager; and Michael Katz, head of international production for the Arts & Entertainment cable-TV network.
- John Brechtel’s daughter, Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, became a City Council member. An outspoken NORD advocate, she raised $25,000 through corporate sponsors for the department in 1990.
Among any group of longtime New Orleanians, it would be difficult to find someone who had never played in a NORD sports program, attended a NORD theatrical production or even taken an occasional morning run on a NORD track. NORD’s reach is widespread; one beneficiary was Givonna Joseph, a daughter of Central City who took NORD-sponsored singing classes and became an opera singer. During the 2010 debate on NORD’s future, she said: “My parents always said to me, ‘You live in the ghetto, (but) the ghetto’s not in you.’ I’m here to attest that NORD has such a tremendous value for all of us.”