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A legacy of leisure

She's a "workaholic," a "go-getter," someone colleagues can't keep up with.

These are just a few ways people describe Cathy Santa, Largo's recreation, parks and arts director who's leaving the job by early next year.

She plans to retire at the tender age of 55, move north to South Carolina and then find something she can do that will have an impact on people's lives.

She doesn't know what is in her future. Consulting could be the answer. Or she could find something entirely new. It doesn't matter, really, as long as she has fun.

That's a clue to why she will leave Largo. After 21 years with the city, 14 of them as director of its parks and recreation, she will depart while it's still fun to work a minimum of 12 hours every workday, and often on weekends.

The results of her work can be seen across the city. There's Largo Central Park, the Largo Cultural Center, the Family Aquatic Center.

But when asked how she managed to do it all, a modest Santa pointed to her staff and the support of the City Commission _ and a lot of hard work.

Her plate is piled high with more projects, including a skate park.

"I've never met anyone who works harder than Cathy Santa, and I bet people would line up behind me saying the exact same thing," said Commissioner Pat Burke.

Santa has made it pretty difficult for someone to step in where she will leave off. No one has been groomed for the position. Mary Nolen, the assistant recreation, parks and arts director, isn't interested and would rather assist the city's new director.

City leaders are wringing their hands, wondering if they will ever find a replacement. They will embark on a national search in about three months. Administrators will look for someone like Santa, someone with a proven track record in being progressive and innovative, someone who can provide excellent services with limited resources, someone who is willing to pick up paper that was carelessly left on the playground.

Some people are good desk people. Others are good field people. Cathy is both, said City Manager Steven Stanton. Her creativity sets her apart from other managers.

"As a city manager, you rely on people's creativity and innovation, and our recreation program has probably been the hallmark in changing our city," he said.

City leaders will fly all across the country and look at the park facilities of those who apply for the job, hoping against hope they can find someone as respected as the current job-holder.

For starters, Santa has no enemies, Mayor Bob Jackson said. He figures she must be one good listener to keep residents, administrators and her staff happy and motivated.

Stanton said Santa is his most

challenging director, always thinking about what's next. As soon as he thinks he knows what is happening in the department, she introduces more ideas. He guessed she hasn't had the same organizational chart for two years in a row.

She kept abreast of the issues, on the state, regional and national level. She has been president of the state's Recreation & Park Administration. Since 1979, she has been a member of the National Recreation and Park Association, a nonprofit service organization that promotes the importance of parks and recreation.

Regionally and nationally, she is known as someone who comes through for the association no matter what, someone to turn to when something needs to be done. She has taken on added duties, including being a member of the American Park and Recreation Society Board and the association's Southeastern Regional Council.

"Anyone in our national association knows her by name simply because of her involvement," said Larry Zehnder, who serves as the association's regional director in the Southeast. "Cathy is one who has dedicated her life to parks and recreation."

As a result, her department has been accredited by the association, one of the first departments in the city to gain national recognition for the way it does business.

Still, there have been challenges for Santa.

Largo Central Park plans were redrawn and redrawn and redrawn. The Cultural Center began as an arts center and then a multipurpose room was added, forcing the department to request a second state grant. She didn't think the city's tennis center would ever come to fruition, and by the time the city's skate park is up and running, the young people who designed it will be in college.

That's what is frustrating about the job, she said.

It's also what makes it rewarding.

"I've always felt anything worth having doesn't come easy," she said.

And the successes outnumber the challenges.

When she came on board, there was a philosophy of "mow, blow and go." Today's it's about "creating memorable experiences," she said. Largo's parks will become a part of history, as people slide photos from family outings into their albums.

What she doesn't realize is she is part of Largo's history. Listen to one of her favorite quotes:

"Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

That's what Santa did, said Gay Gentry, chairwoman of the Recreation, Parks and Arts Advisory Board.

"It's so easy to keep on doing the things you're doing all the time," Gentry said. "(Santa) has always said, "Let's just make it the best.' Sometimes to make it the best you have to go where no one has gone before."