Jon Greenberg, Recreation Center Father Figure for More Than 50 Years

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For more than a half-century, Jon Greenberg, former Potrero Hill Recreation Center recreation director, has helped children, teenagers, and young adults grow. “Working on the Hill became a joyful experience in my life. I started in 1966 and it became something I wrapped my life around. Leading sports, activities, and the Center gave me self-worth…allowed me to participate and respect these young people as they grew,” he said.

Greenberg, who turns 80 next year, retired as a recreation director in 2008. For the past 10 years he’s volunteered there in various capacities. 

Greenberg led softball, baseball, track, and flag football teams. He was instrumental in helping the Center establish such afterschool activities as drama, cooking, arts and crafts, and homework assistance. He’s known to his former charges as “the Berg,” “the Green Machine,” and “Coach.” 

He deployed Rec and Parks funds and raised monies from local businesses to take young people to restaurants, swimming pools, the San Francisco symphony, college and pro athletic games, water skiing, fishing, swimming, and snowy mountains. He wanted to offer youth as much exposure outside the Hill as possible.

“I worked with other Rec and Park staff to establish a good rapport with the business community. This motivated them to support Rec and Parks events and trips. The kids would respond by coming to the events and going on the trips. What resulted was a group of people that became a positive force that cared about the kids,” said Greenberg.

“I remember taking one group of six kids to the Fairmont Hotel to see The Supremes when they were playing there. I took teams to Hawaii three times and Los Angeles twice. I would phone a recreation center there so the kids could play basketball on their courts. One year, one of our teams won a local baseball championship. I arranged for them to play a game in Baldwin Hills in LA and for each of the opposing team’s players’ families to house them overnight,” said Greenberg.

“He took teams to Hawaii, Disneyland, and places like Heather’s Farm,” said Erika Woodson, a former Hill resident. Woodson played baseball, basketball, and flag football from middle through high school at the Recreation Center. She’s now a dentist for the U.S. Air Force. 

“Every Thursday, Berg would take a group of kids to Sizzler in Daly City. He did it for more than 20 years. He had small incentives for things we could work hard for and look forward to,” said Woodson.

In 1979, Greenberg founded the San Francisco Pro-Am Basketball League, a summer hoops association for high school, college, and professional players. In 1989, he moved the league to Kezar Pavilion in Haight-Ashbury, which had more room for spectators. Greenberg remains the Men’s League director as the program enters its 41st year. 

Former Hill resident, Charles Bryant, known as “Coach Charlie O.” co-directed the Rec Center with Greenberg starting in the 1990s. According to Bryant, Greenberg was a big part of why he joined Rec and Parks. “Jon kind of raised me at the Recreation Center. He was my coach. He was a true father figure.” 

Bryant first met Greenberg when he was nine years-old, after he joined the Center’s T-ball league. “I’m a fanatic about sports. Baseball is my heart. But Jon expanded everything for us, like arts and crafts and homework help, at the Recreation Center. He showed us it takes teamwork, togetherness, and belief in one another to make it. He always kept us occupied, even though he wouldn’t let you overdo anything,” said Bryant. 

Greenberg grew up in Ingleside, and graduated from George Washington High School, where he was on the tennis and basketball teams. He attended City College of San Francisco, transferred to San Francisco State University, earning a Bachelor of Arts as well as a Master of Arts in Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Administration. In 1961, Greenberg started part-time with Rec and Parks, a few years later moving to fulltime. “I became a fulltime recreation director at Potrero Hill Recreation Center in 1966. That’s I where I stayed, by choice, for 52 years,” said Greenberg.

Greenberg said that Rose Hammork, “Ms. Rose,” who worked as a recreation supervisor on the Hill for more than 30 years, “was a great inspiration to me. Anytime I had a question, she was there to help me. You see the kids for three or four years in a school setting. In a recreation center, they keep coming until they’re 18 or 20. This means you can have a really big positive influence on someone’s life. Potrero Hill is mixed. There are upper class, middle class, and low-income residences within three to four blocks of each other. From when I started to when I finished, the Recreation Center and the Neighborhood House were two guiding points where youngsters and adults could go and receive respect and good activities. Ninety percent of our attendance was from kids in Potrero Terrace and Potrero Annex.” 

“The drug scene started developing in the late-1970s. Once that scene became prevalent, then we started losing kids to it. I have a stack of letters from kids who went to prison. One of my former players in prison wrote to ask for a TV set, so I got him one,” said Greenberg.

According to Edward Allen, one of Greenberg’s former players, Greenberg helped make the Center a haven for young people who wanted to succeed. “Jon treated everybody the same, no matter what race, creed, or color you were. That’s why he was able to stay up there all those years. When the crack epidemic hit in the 1980s, people came into the gym with guns. Jon stopped that. He let the people who wanted to bring that element into the Center know this is a place the kids can go to get away from all the violence on the streets,” said Allen. 

 “At the Rec Center, kids learned that sports was an avenue to have fun. They found the value of playing with a peer group and having a good time,” Greenberg said. “I would talk to their coaches at school and make sure the kids were doing well academically. We never emphasized star players or things of that nature.” 

“I was the only girl in my family who played sports, said Woodson. “My family thought it was kind of a tomboyish thing, but Jon was there for me. He showed up to my basketball games and tennis matches. He really helped me embrace who I was and feel comfortable with what I enjoyed.” 

Greenberg said that what he loves most about working in recreation is “every day, you can have an impact. My passion and commitment are still there. How often are you put into a position to be a positive influence to a young person for over 15 years of their formative life? I will continue to offer my knowledge and experience to the staff and young people at the Potrero Hill Recreation Center and SF Pro Am and to be a resource to Rec and Parks to be better able to serve others.”