Leland Citizen of the Year Walt Chmielenski helps the town have more fun.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Michael Cline
Fifteen years ago, Walt Chmielenski did not live here. Today, he’s Leland’s Citizen of the Year. In a proclamation dated December 15, 2016, Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman praised Chmielenski for his distinguished service to the town and asked for all citizens to join in extending their appreciation to him.
The town asked Chmielenski to join the town’s new Parks & Recreation Board in 2006. An avid fan of several sports – he played senior softball in Wilmington for 12 years and plays golf two or three times a week – he agreed to serve. In 2008 he was voted chairman, a position he has held ever since.
The board serves in an advisory capacity to the town’s director of parks and recreation. The board meets monthly and its greatest contribution is total engagement in the events planned for the community, such as a concert series and summer movies in Leland Town Park and Bark in the Park, which encourages residents to bring their dogs for free inoculations and to meet pet-related vendors and more.
Perhaps the board’s most significant event is Founders’ Day celebrating Leland’s incorporation in 1989. The celebration is held the second Saturday of September and is free to the public. It includes vendors, children’s rides, lunch and much more.
The celebration has grown immensely as the town has grown. “When we moved here in 2002 Leland had a population of 2,000,” Chmielenski says. “It’s now approaching 20,000. The town has just exploded.”
Chmielenski says he is gratified that the event has grown each year. “We’re probably getting between 3,000 and 5,000 people coming through the park that day,” he says. “I usually volunteer there and generally do the hospitality tent where we receive the folks coming into the event.” He says he feels it’s important to greet visitors and to provide them with a schedule of events and other information to make their day more enjoyable.
A highlight of the event for Chmielenski is honoring veterans. “We have them sit next to the stage and play patriotic music and ask them by service group to stand,” he says. “It’s very patriotic and very emotional.”
He says of all the things he’s done in the role of serving the town, Founders’ Day has been the most rewarding. “I wanted to make sure we had an adequate way of advising the attendees who the entertainment is, the times, the vendors, where everything is located and whether we have a certain act. My involvement has been there, but I’m part of a team. I don’t do things on my own. I like to be involved and get things done, but certainly wasn’t looking for any kind of recognition.”
Coming up soon is Leland’s Easter egg hunt. It’s one of the town’s most popular events, so popular, in fact, that the board added an adult hunt two years ago.
Feedback from the community is critical to the success of the board’s efforts, Chmielenski says. Just recently, the board held a roundtable to discuss the types of events residents would like to see happen. This is the first time the board has held such a large-format group, and Chmielenski is hopeful there’ll be some creative new ideas.
Those ideas, just as those received informally from the community, are discussed by the board and presented to the town’s director of parks and recreation. Conversely, the director might bring an idea to the board for review. The board may also work with town staff and other volunteers to pull an event together.
Chmielenski is quick to credit the parks and recreation director and town staff for the ultimate management of events. Until recently, the director was Niel Brooks, but Since Brooks’ recent promotion, Bill Nadeau has taken the job. Nadeau moved to Leland from Ohio, Chmielenski says, which he sees as a testimony to the town’s growing reputation. Likewise, he says, there were many applications for the recently filled Cultural Arts Center director’s position.
Originally from Connecticut, Chmielenski graduated from Quinnitiac College (now University), then enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he served as a Russian language intercept operator. The Air Force sent him to Syracuse University to study Russian. That’s where he met his wife, Judy. They married in 1967 and he finished his career at the National Security Agency in Maryland. He and Judy subsequently worked for Etna Group Insurance until 2002, when they retired.
They first visited the Leland area to see friends and later purchased property at Magnolia Greens. They are both very active beyond his obviously busy schedule with the town board. Judy belongs to a book club as well as a women’s organization called Scene III. They frequently travel to Pennsylvania and Virginia to follow their grandchildren’s activities.
Chmielenski’s current term with the Town of Leland runs out a year from June. He hasn’t decided whether he will continue or not. “It will be 12 years on the board and 10 years as chairman when I finish the term,” he says. “We’ve got a fantastic board, and there are some folks that I think could easily move into the chairmanship if I decide to hang up my gavel – which I have never used, by the way.”