Bob Holden wasn't the biggest or fastest player on his 1965 little league team. But when the ice cream man behind home plate in Juniper Valley Park yelled out an offer of a free cone for a home run, Holden dug in and socked a frozen rope over the shortstop's head. The next thing he knew, he was sliding into home, safe, and through the cloud of dirt emerged a man in white, his outstretched hand holding the coveted cone.
Today, Holden watches this generation's little leaguers on those same fields from the seat of his tractor, which he uses every two days to keep the fields game ready.
"The fresh grass, it just smells great," he said. "After I mow the fields I just sit there for a half hour, maybe more. It's so peaceful. You look at these green gems, and it's just satisfying. And then you see the kids run out there, and it just doesn't get any better."
Between his post as President of the Juniper Valley Civic Association, his seat on Queens Community Board 5, his job and his family life, it's a wonder Holden has time to provide such impeccable care and oversight of the fields ‒ and, for that matter, the entire park, which scored a 98, the highest grade in NY4P's 2012 Report Card on Large Parks. The park's enormously popular bocce courts, our surveyors found, were so clean that one park visitor joked he would eat off them.
The score is due in no small part to Holden's leadership and volunteer stewardship in the park and the community.
"Bob just does an amazing, amazing amount of work for the community," said Tony Nunziato, a close friend. "On weekends, this guy puts on that little straw hat and mows acres of grass. He's up at 2, 3 in the morning slumped over the computer, working on the [Civic Association] magazine. After a storm, like the microburst last year, who's the first person in the park making sure things are OK, before any elected officials or City workers? It's Bob. He's the microburst! He's constantly making sure everything is done for the benefit of the community."
Holden's work for the park really took off during the Giuliani administration, in the late 90s, when he told then-Council Member Thomas Ognibene about the poor condition of Juniper's three upper baseball fields. Holden, who is a graphic designer and loves baseball, remembers nights sitting at his dining room table, drawing sketches of what he hoped the fields would look like. Eventually, with Ognibene's help, Holden presented his vision to the Deputy Mayor. It wasn't long before then-Parks Commissioner Henry Stern agreed to rehab the fields.
"It was a battle, a major undertaking," Holden said. "We said if you build them the way we want them, we'll take care of them. And we still do today."
He added how pleased he is, in general, with the Parks Department's upkeep of the rest of the park.
The field project was the first in a string of capital projects in the park, including a refurbished hockey rink, playground, gardens, a new track and that spotless bocce court.
Holden regularly leads clean-ups in every section of the park and has built the Civic Association into a venerable, machine-like force of park and community stewarship. Even the association's magazine, the Juniper Berry, has become a tool to advocate on behalf of the park.
"We use the magazine to keep elected officials and the Parks Department on their toes," he said. "For example, we've had an issue with off-leash dogs on the fields, especially at night. So last week, we put a picture of dogs running freely on the fields and did a feature on the problem. Within a day, the Department had PEP [Police Enforcement Patrol] officers stationed there."
Holden has also made a big impact in Middle Village beyond the Juniper Park boundaries. He and Nunziato led a campaign for more than 10 years to transform the former Elmhurst gas tank site into a park, though it had been slated to become a Home Depot. Thanks to their persistence, Mayor Bloomberg eventually sided with the community, and a 6.5-acre park opened in May 2011.
"Bob and I met over that campaign, and we've been friends ever since, "Nunziato said. "And there's no more loyal guy. He's a foul-weather friend."
Holden, 61, is showing no signs of letting up in his tireless work for the community. He is president of the little league he once played in, and he understands the importance of neighbors vigilantly overseeing care of their beloved parks.
"I've realized that as the park goes, so goes the neighborhood," he said. "It impacts how people living nearby take care of their own personal property."
And while humble ‒ "You can never do nothing for the guy," Nunziato said ‒ Holden acknowledges his group's success. He says it's a replicable model for park stewardship across the city.
"The keys," he said, "are to publicize your work, share it with elected officials and the City. Through that, you can build your volunteer base. Even with the smallest successes, you can say, 'See, I made a difference.' Build on those successes."
Holden has done that, in Juniper Valley Park, and in all facets of his life. Just like his ice-cream-induced slide into home plate, he vividly recalls his first dates with his future wife.
"She grew up down the street from me," he said. "We'd sit on park benches and stroll through the park. We're still doing that."