BELLEAIR — In the 1980s, a certain kind of kid hung out at the Belleair Recreation Center. Jocks. Rough and tumble guys raring to run, kick, hit, block and pass balls. That's what John Yevich says. He should know.
Yevich was a new hire then, a new employee who would become Belleair's recreation director and stay more than three decades. As he prepares to retire this fall, Yevich can't help but smile about the changes that he has seen and been part of over the years.
"Today, we appeal to a broader range of individuals, not just those interested in athletics," said Yevich. "We have more girls than back in the day. We've added programs in our new recreational center that we couldn't have before. And we have a lot of adult programs."
When Yevich originally was offered the job at Belleair, he turned it down. He had been working at the Clearwater YMCA and wanted a break. But within a year, he missed working with young people.
Ask Yevich what his biggest challenge was over the years and he'll tell you it was building the new Dimmit Community Center five years ago.
"We were supposed to raise half of the money, which started out to be $1 million, but it was in the midst of the construction boom, when even concrete was difficult to get," said Yevich. "At one time, I even suggested decreasing the size of the project, but luckily the council and mayor at the time said no. They said we were going to build the facility we'd originally planned. And we did. I had tremendous support from the mayor and council and the community."
The final cost came in at $2.8 million for the 14,000-square-foot building with two lighted sports fields. And from then on, the Belleair Recreation Center became more than a hangout for kids to play ball. The center became the heart of the community — an icon in Belleair, much like Yevich.
Assistant recreation director Eric Wahlbeck, who will take over as the town's first Parks and Recreations director, was 7 when he first met Yevich. Wahlbeck grew up involved in various sports and activities at the center.
"I think of John more as a father figure," said Wahlbeck. "He's taught me a lot through the years. One of the most important things was never say no to anything — to listen to people, to consider everyone's ideas."
Sara Borger, recreation services clerk, has known Yevich for 15 years. Her kids, like Wahlbeck, grew up at the recreation center. She's the first person anyone sees when they enter the Belleair Recreation Center, and she's all smiles. She admits that the center can get hectic, but says Yevich makes working there fun.
"He's the best boss I've ever had," Borger said. "We all work together as a team here. John lets us know the work we're doing is purposeful. We get the work done, but it's a fun place to work and John wanted it to be that way."
After all these years, Yevich estimates he's worked with maybe 2,000 children. Many have grown up and come back to visit. Sometimes it takes a minute to recognize the face of the adult standing before him. Oftentimes, the adults come back with their own children, ready to enroll them in anything from computer to dance class, arts and crafts to tennis or flag football to music lessons.
"John Yevich has raised three generation of Belleair kids, and they always come back to see him," said Mayor Gary Katica. "They love him. I hope he stays in touch. He says he will come back for special events and I hope he does. He's legendary in Belleair. He's groomed Eric Wahlbeck for us and I'm so pleased."
Yevich plans to work part-time at the center, but will no longer deal with the everyday serious decisions. That makes him happy. So does knowing that he's leaving the recreation center in Wahlbeck's care.
The first thing Yevich plans to do when he leaves full-time employment is visit his parents in upstate New York. That and to spend more time with his family, especially his wife, Cynthia, principal of Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Seminole.
"It will be nice for my wife to come home from work and have dinner waiting," said Yevich. "Or to have chores done before the weekend."
He is that kind of guy. A man who only wants to be remembered as fair and even-handed. A man who thought of his past 33 years as a labor of love.
"John Yevich could be a brown statue outside," said Wahlbeck. "He's made working fun for everyone and has never has been afraid to get his hands dirty. Making people happy, whatever age they are, is our vision. Everyone here has that same vision. It's all to John's credit. His legacy in Belleair is big."