Thirty years ago, a perky Minnesota native with no parks experience whatsoever was hired to be the administrator of a Brooklyn park plagued by crime and filth.
Back then, Prospect Park was easily one of the worst areas in the borough, sometimes unsafe to walk through even in daylight.
But that was then.
Today, Prospect Park has become what Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe described as "a New York City landmark, a prize park, and a peerless expanse of green."
And the woman credited for this turn around? That same perky Minnesota native, Tupper Thomas, who as of January 31 will step down from her official posts as Prospect Park Administrator, Prospect Park Alliance President and confirmed miracle worker.
"From the restoration of its woodlands, to the introduction of family-fun programs at the Audubon Center, and the current creation of the Lakeside Center, she has spearheaded the effort to bring Prospect Park back to the people," said Parks Commissioner Benepe.
When she first took the job, the then 35-year-old Thomas was warned by her neighbors in her Crown Heights neighborhood.
"They thought I was crazy," she said.
The Parks Commissioner who hired her, Gordon J. Davis, was even quoted as saying that "she seemed to be from the moon".
But her enthusiasm and experience in urban development and planning made her ideal for the job. Her only flaw seemed to be that on her job application, she couldn't spell the name of one of the men responsible for designing the park, Fredrick Law Olmsted.
Her interest in the park was not just as an administrator though, it was also as a parent. Before she was hired, she had taken her two small children to the Third Street Playground, where they got impetigo. And they never went back.
Thomas' first order of business was to get the park back to the idyllic sanctuary that Olmsted and Vaux envisioned, but that did not mean just planting trees or trimming the grass. Instead, she set to work repairing the park's many crumbling buildings.
"I remember thinking at the time, we should have started with landscape," Thomas recalled. "But the reality was that people saw those buildings and thought that was bad, because people see architecture first."
Next she tackled the ball fields and the Long Meadow in order to encourage people to start coming back. To be able to continue with the landscaping, Thomas said that a lot of historic research had to be done on Olmsted parks.
"I knew we had done a good job when the Brooklyn Museum changed its description to 'next to historic Prospect Park," she laughed.
She began her dual role as Prospect Park Alliance President, when the Alliance formed in 1987. Their first order of business was to restore the carousel that for years had been a symbol of the decrepit state of the park.
In the 1980's Thomas also began to take on one of the biggest problems that plagued the park, the racial divide that kept people only on certain sides of the park. Until she began to work on this, the Ravine seemed to be the "imaginary racial line".
"It's taken a number of years," Thomas said. "After 20 years, we had made a big dent in it."
Thomas credits the Halloween celebration, which is accessible from all sides of the park, for remedying some of this.
"We made a concerted effort with our programming so that people felt more comfortable in every part of the park, like drawing all different kinds of music to the band shell that would bring in different ethnic groups."
With so many memories to choose from—the Halloween event, Memorial Day gatherings, and seeing the park full of people—Thomas said some of her favorite moments in the park include her dog.
"Walking in the evening when there is snow and a full moon. And I would walk with my dog through the Ravine. "
But choosing her favorite place in the park isn't as easy.
"That's like asking which one of your children do you like best!" she remarked.
Thomas said that she feels the most emotional connection to the Nethermead, the middle meadow in the park. "That's the area where my dad's tree, and my mom's tree and my dog's tree are."
She also feels an emotional connection to the people she has spent years working with and serving. Thomas gets a little choked up when she talks about what she will miss the most about being the Prospect Park Administrator.
"My staff. So many people who are so devoted to the park. Some people who have been here over 20 years and some only 2 or 3 years and they've caught the bug."
Of Emily Lloyd, her successor, Thomas says, "Emily is smart, smart, smart. She's mature and capable. It is ideal."
She offers this bit of advice after 30 years, "Be very flexible and listen and watch."
Her parting gift to the people of Prospect Park is the new that broke ground December 15.
And Thomas, still a Crown Heights resident, plans on using it once she retires.
But Thomas will continue after retirement with her involvement in the City Parks Alliance, a national organization that works with cities to develop their parks as a part of city revitalization.
As she said: "There are no great cities without a great park."