STREETERVILLE — When Chicago Park District Commissioner Martin Laird Koldyke was making the rounds meeting city officials shortly after his appointment to the board, a teammate stopped him short when he realized Koldyke hadn't yet met Erma Tranter.
"After I'd been exhausted, and worked through that series, they said, 'Have you met Erma?'" Koldyke said. "And I said who's that? And then one of the staff members said, 'He hasn't met the queen.'"
Tranter is retiring from her position as president of Friends of the Parks this year, after 34 years at the park advocacy organization's helm.
At a Park District board meeting Wednesday, commissioners unanimously passed a resolution honoring Tranter's service to the park district, from founding the Garfield Park Conservancy Alliance to spearheading programs like Shakespeare in the Parks and Adopt-a-Park.
Tranter has worked for Friends of the Parks since 1980 — that "translates to eight general superintendents," she said at the meeting Wednesday.
Two years after she joined the organization, the park district was sued by the federal government for spending tax money unequally, discriminating against minority neighborhoods, Tranter said.
Backed by newly elected Mayor Harold Washington, Tranter and Friends of the Parks lobbied a grassroots movement for park advocacy.
"Today, the political system is no longer in place: a professional system is in place. And there are 130 advisory councils in the city, half of which are raising money for playgrounds, programs and infrastructure in partnership with the Park District," Tranter said after thanking the board for the recognition. "The change has been monumental."
Also during that time, Chicago's park district has earned accreditation from the National Parks and Recreation Association and from the State of Illinois Association of Park Districts.
"This is no small matter," Tranter said. "And the awards continue to pile on at the park district."
Tranter, 70, announced in a letter to Friends of the Parks newsletter subscribers that she was leaving her position to take on "a new challenge with a nonprofit group working on health care."
After passing the resolution, board members thanked Tranter for her years of service.
"We in the parks, and we in the city of Chicago, have benefited so tremendously from your commitment to the parks," said Commissioner Avis LaVelle. "Your work is such an achievement through all of the ways you have improved the lives of people in every community. There are so many people that owe you a debt of gratitude that don't know they owe you a debt of gratitude."
Supt. Mike Kelley thanked Tranter for challenging the district in its role as a watchdog.
"The advocacy, the pushing us — the 'is that really a good idea' question that you asked — is very important," Kelly said.
"You made it very clear that there was a high standard, that the Chicago Park District is a gem, that we are its caretakers for a very short time, and that we have to live up to a high standard."