Sailer hangs up hat after 21 years in parks and rec: ‘I did it for the kids’

Tony Sailer credits the supportive staff around him for many of his accomplishments over the years.

Brainerd Parks and Recreation Director Tony Sailer poses with a goat in September, when a group of the animals was hired to eat European Buckthorn in Rotary Park to prevent the spread of the invasive species. Sailer retired Friday, Dec. 18, after 21 years with the city. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Even the best quarterbacks need a strong team around them to be successful.

Tony Sailer views his work in the same light.

“I’ve always said, Joe Montana would not have been a good quarterback without an offensive line. And I had one hell of an offensive line,” Sailer said in a phone interview Friday, Dec. 11.

After 21 years working for Brainerd’s parks and recreation department, Sailer clocked out for the last time Friday, Dec. 18.

Even in a career chock-full of accomplishments with park upgrades and new sports programs, Sailer won’t ever say he did it alone.


“The credit goes to my staff,” he said. “I might have been calling the signals, but it goes to my staff.”

Recreation Coordinator Katie Kaufman, though, will say much of what she has learned throughout her career with the city can be attributed to Sailer.

“He’s taught me so much, it’s unreal,” she said.

Katie Kaufman
Brainerd Recreation Coordinator Katie Kaufman talks about Parks Director Tony Sailer during a Zoom interview Tuesday, Dec. 15, ahead of Sailer's retirement. Screenshot

The two have worked together since 2014, when Kaufman started as recreation specialist, a post Sailer had himself from 1999-2010. When the parks director resigned in 2010, Sailer took up the position on an interim basis, before officially taking over a year later.

“You talk about how the people you work with become your closest friends and the people you’re closest with because you spend the most time with them. That’s definitely true,” Kaufman said. “I’m starting to prep myself for not having conversations that last one to two hours during the work day with him.”

Now she’ll have to make due with the fun memories, like the time Sailer wrote a rap about her old little Mercury Cougar, or the time her turn signals weren’t working so he found a gigantic sign with big arrows warning other drivers to move over and put it on top of her car as a joke.


“I can’t really even tell you how big this thing was,” she said. “It was like the size of my car, on top of my little itty bitty sports car.”

And then there was the year Kaufman got a calendar called “Nuns Having Fun” and filmed a segment for Snapchat every month of Sailer turning the page and explaining what shenanigans the nuns were up to this time.

“And to this day people message me, and they’re like, ‘Oh man, I miss the guy who did the nun calendar,” she said. “We only did it one year, but it was the best.”

Miracle Field 7305.JPG
Brainerd Parks Director Tony Sailer assists a Miracle League baseball player at Bane Park. Retiring after 21 years with the parks and recreation department, Sailer said creating the Miracle League for those with disabilities is his proudest accomplishment. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Kaufman has Sailer to thank for broadening her film horizons, too, having watched cult classics like “Blazing Saddles” and “Airplane” only to understand his constant movie quotes and references.

And on a more serious note, she feels Sailer kept her grounded in her job and taught her various lessons, like creative problem-solving, how to expect the unexpected, the need to get your hands dirty at work and how to accept the word “no” every now and then.

“He is just a very selfless guy. He’s always willing to help,” she said. “It’s going to be actually really sad losing him.”


The community has a lot to thank Sailer for, too.

He’s had his hand in a wide variety of projects, from upgrades to the adult softball fields to building a warming house in Gregory Park to the creation of Buster Dog Park, not to mention programs and events like youth pond hockey, Benchwarmer Basketball and the Great Pumpkin Festival.

He’ll carry with him fond memories of the youth baseball programs he ran and the kids he met along the way.

“There was a time where there was a kid that after the game was walking between the fields, his head was down kind of, and I walked up and patted him on the back, and I said, ‘Nice hit tonight,’ and his face just lit up because someone had noticed, and his parents weren’t there,” Sailer said. “So I always kind of rooted for the ones that don’t get noticed all the time. There’s a lot of kids that they need a good mentor, and either myself or the volunteer coaches kind of steer them in the right direction. There’s a lot of need out there, and I think parks and rec help fill that need.”

Pumpkin Festival 1 2017.JPG
Brainerd Parks Director Tony Sailer celebrates with a pie-eating contestant at the Great Pumpkin Festival at Gregory Park in 2017. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Among Sailer’s proudest accomplishments during his time as parks director — and the one thing he’ll miss the most — is the Miracle League, a baseball program he started at Bane Park in 2014 for those with special needs.

“Those kids taught me a lot about life. If you say you’re sorry, accept it and forget about it — totally forget about it, just move on. Laugh at everything,” he said. “They were a blessing to me. I’m going to miss those kids.”


Sailer solicited grants and donations to make upgrades to Bane Park for the program, single-handedly raising about $200,000 of the $215,000 needed.

“That’s my baby,” he said. “If I’m proud of one thing, it’s getting that field for those kids that are mentally and physically disabled. The joy that they express is worth a million dollars.”

That’s why the surprise from parks board members during Sailer’s last meeting Tuesday, Dec. 15, was met with such an emotional reaction. A permanent plaque with his name and picture will be erected at Bane Park.

“I’m speechless right now. It’s amazing,” he said, struggling for anything more to say.

Board members took turns thanking Sailer for all his hard work over the years, joking the city is probably happy he wasn’t an hourly employee.

“A lot of your own hours were put into a lot of different things,” board member Troy Rushmeyer said. “It’s been a pleasure, from my standpoint, working with you in the community and youth baseball. And yes, you’ve been instrumental in a lot of things that have happened here. … Thank you very much for your time and effort in this community.”

Sailer joked he was grateful for the technical difficulties with his video during the virtual meeting, so no one could see him bringing out the Kleenex box.

Everything he did, he said, was for the kids.


“You put the extra time in for the kids. … I would have died for a (parks and rec) program like this. And so I kind of wanted to give the kids something I never had,” Sailer said.

All his work done, he now feels he’s leaving parks and recreation in good hands, with both Kaufman and Paul Sandy, who’s the director of the city’s new interim public works department, which will now encompass the parks.

“You’ve got two top-notch people there to lean on,” he told the parks board and city staff. “With Katie, I’ve always told her — and we’ve talked about this — that my strengths were her weaknesses and my weaknesses were her strengths.”

So with his successors in place, Sailer can enjoy retirement in Vergas, where he moved in September with his golden retriever Rudy after buying a piece of the land from his parents’ old resort. He not only gets to live closer to his family but also has the best address he could ask for: Sailer Road.

“Isn’t that great?” he said.

After graduating from Perham High School, he left the area for St. Cloud State University, where he got a degree in mass communications. Sailer worked at the Wadena Pioneer Journal for three years before moving on to the Brainerd Dispatch, where he spent 16 years as a sports writer and outdoors editor from 1983-99.

He decided in his senior year he wanted to get into the television side of the mass communications business but joked he ultimately took print jobs after realizing he didn’t have the hair for TV.

After having worked in both the journalism and parks fields, Sailer said he feels lucky.


“I've been incredibly fortunate because I love sports, I love the outdoors, I love working with kids, and the two careers I've had in Brainerd, I got to do all three of those,” he said.

Sailer finished off his final parks board meeting with a quote from one of his favorite movies, “Apollo 13.” With the ship secure, he closed with, “This is the Odyssey signing off.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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