Family man and visionary Clifton French and his legacy are the reason Minnesota has one of the largest regional parks systems in the country.
After joining the Army during the Korean War, French earned a degree in recreational leadership at the University of Minnesota. His positions included recreation programmer, program director at Coffman Memorial Union and director of parks and recreation for the city of Edina.
“He put his heart and soul into everything he did. He was involved in everything. He didn’t just put a pencil dot on it, he was the whole encyclopedia,” French’s daughter, Priscilla French, says. “He was involved in our lives, local community and parks.”
French was close with her father. “We used to joke that we were his research and development team. We drove down to New Orleans and stopped at every park there was,” French says. Her father collected information on parks across the country to use to improve on the parks back home.
“It was just part of growing up,” says Betsy Larson, Clifton French’s niece and former member of Three Rivers Park District Foundation’s board. He would have my sister and I in what he called ‘Kool-Aid college’ and we would stay with him for a week.” Larson recalls spending time on her uncle's sailboat and visiting parks. “He was a wonderful guy and my favorite uncle.”
Clifton French was named the first park superintendent, and 21 years followed, during which 24,000 acres of land were added into the regional park system now known as Three Rivers Park District.
Plymouth is home to French Regional Park, named in French's honor. It sits along the north side of Medicine Lake. There, his legacy has been put into action.
“It’s very humbling,” says Priscilla French, who had not returned to the park for several years until her father’s memorial service. “When I drove in with my mom, the trees were all full and mature and both my mom and I started to cry. It was so beautiful. We know the hours he gave, and the blood, sweat and tears, and for him to be recognized and appreciated in perpetuity is really incredible.”
“My daughter just moved back to Minnesota last fall, so it’ll be really fun to show my granddaughters Grandpa French’s park,” says Priscilla French.
The recreation area at French Regional Park will be put to good use with the construction of a new playground. The park, slated for a summer opening, will have towers and nets similar those that Clifton French had in his parks.
“Two to three generations played in the previous play area,” park operations supervisor Jill Caffee says. Caffee says the new playground has taken two years to design and build.
With parks across the state, Minnesotans won’t have to travel far to enjoy what the famous Minnesota summer has to offer, all thanks to Clifton French’s vision.