A Passion for Impacting Lives

By Kevin Tankersley

Parks and Recreation Director discusses 10 year master plan

John Williams has been director of Waco Parks and Recreation for just over two years. He previously held the same position in Indianapolis and worked in several other city departments there. He and his wife, Yvonne, have been married for 31 years and have three grown sons. She works at Education Service Center Region 12 as a math specialist.

“She helps teachers become better teachers,” Williams said. He also teaches a government class at McLennan Community College.

Williams and Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley met recently in a parks and recreation conference room in the city’s Community Services Building to talk about the department’s 10-year master plan, how Williams sees himself as a leader and how his mother encouraged his education.

WACOAN: How long have you been director of Waco Parks and Recreation?

Williams: I arrived August 31, 2015, so just a little over two years.

WACOAN: How many people are in parks and rec?

Williams: We have 134 full-time individuals.

WACOAN: Where were you prior to this?

Williams: Before I came to Waco, I was the director of the parks department in Indianapolis, Indiana. I grew up in Muncie, Indiana, where Ball State University is. I went to school at Indiana University Bloomington for both undergraduate and graduate school. That’s the Hoosiers.

WACOAN: I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard that Indianapolis is just a great city.

Williams: It really is. My first experience with Indianapolis was in 1987. I went off to school, then decided I was going to go into the military. In 1987, I joined the military and went to the induction center in Indianapolis. That was my first experience with Indianapolis, even though I had lived in Indiana for the first 18 years of my life. Growing up so close but never being there, I had always envisioned it to be one way. When I got there in 1987, I was surprised because as our state capital and largest city, it was really not that good a downtown. There were boarded-up buildings and things of that nature.

Then I went in the military, did five years and got out, then went to graduate school down in Bloomington. I lived there a number of years, then moved to northwest Indiana and worked up there. Then I had an opportunity to come back to Indianapolis in 2001. In that 14-year period of time, the city had transformed. It became a city that I think a lot of people view today as being one of the great cities in the United States, and it really is. It’s a great place to raise a family. It has a lot of different amenities that you want in a big city, but it still has that hometown feel.

I kind of liken Waco to it in a smaller sense because of that hometown feeling you get here. People are really nice here, and that’s how it was in Indianapolis.

WACOAN: And what all did you do in Indianapolis?

Williams: I started out working in the Department of Metropolitan Development. I worked in the [Department of] Public Works and migrated over into [Indy Parks and Recreation]. I ended up there as the director of parks and recreation.

WACOAN: What prompted the move from Indianapolis to Waco?

Williams: I was in an appointed position. The state of Indiana has a strong-mayor form of government. In Texas, you have more of a council-manager form of government. In Indianapolis, I was an appointed official by the mayor, and the mayor decided he wasn’t going to run again. So my wife and I said, ‘Maybe we can take a chance and look around for places to go.’ We had lived in Texas for a year, years ago, and we liked Texas. We decided to look in the South. I started looking for jobs as an assistant city manager, and I applied for some jobs in Waco. They ended up hiring me as [parks and recreation] director.

WACOAN: So it was kind of like a new coach taking over a team and bringing in his or her own people?

Williams: That’s typically the way it works. There have been some instances where the new mayor who comes in kept some of the holdovers, if you will, especially if they were of the same political party. Even though my appointment wasn’t a political appointment, the party that was going to be coming in was a different party, so the likelihood of staying was going to be a little more challenging for me. I didn’t have a problem with that.

I have a master’s in public administration. I really went to school to study local government management, and I fell in love with this whole idea of council-managed form of government. I just think that, from a structural standpoint, it lends itself to have more of an administrative approach to managing a city than a strong-mayor form of government. A lot of times, that ends up becoming political. It sometimes gets in the way of progression. This is the thing I like about Waco — you don’t see or hear that contentious relationship between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. It very seldom, if at all, comes up in local government management. For me, that was very akin to what I was looking for when I went to school and started studying local government management.

WACOAN: So how do you and your wife like Waco so far?

Williams: We love it. We absolutely love it.

I’ve been married for 31 years, and she’s my best friend. We’ve never been afraid of a challenge and venturing out and doing different things. I’ve been in the military. I’ve lived abroad. Because she’s my best friend and I’m her best friend, we really have been able to transplant ourselves and go different places and become part of that community. And Waco has been that. We really enjoy it because the people here seem so friendly and so kind. That’s something we’ve been looking for.

WACOAN: I read yesterday that the East Waco River Trail is almost finished.

Williams: Yes, it’s about to be open. It’s the finishing of the east side riverwalk. What it’s doing for us is completing a loop that is, if you include Baylor, about a 5.5-mile loop around the Brazos River.

The stretch that we just completed is almost two-thirds [of a mile]. The uniqueness of it is not just the fact that it’s completing the loop, but also how it’s being completed. A good portion of that is out over the water. It’s a bridge span of a half-a-mile or so. It gives a unique perspective when you’re walking on the riverwalk. I’m really excited about it because when we have special events or running events, we don’t have to get up on the access roads. It will open up some opportunities for people to be more safe when they’re walking or riding.

WACOAN: And doesn’t it offer another route to McLane Stadium?

Williams: Absolutely. It’s a much easier pathway. That’s a great opportunity to get to McLane Stadium safely.

WACOAN: And aren’t you working on a master plan?

Williams: We just completed the 10-year master plan back in April. It gives us a holistic view of our park system and what we aspire to do over the next 10 years. It was a great opportunity for us to survey the community. We had about 3,000 survey responses about our park system. Some of the questions we asked were, how do they feel about the park system as it stands currently? What would they like to see in the future in the way of parks and amenities? What kind of programming would they like to see in the parks? Are we doing a good job in providing the programs that we have? The type of information we got back helps us become informed of where we need to go 10 years down the road.

WACOAN: Was there a consensus about how things are going currently?

Williams: Yeah, there was. About 80-something percent were in favor of what we were doing programmatically as well as the cleanliness of the parks and what we had to offer. Cameron Park stood out as the favorite park, of course. It’s a good-sized regional park for a city the size of Waco.

WACOAN: Were there areas in the survey where you didn’t grade as well?

Williams: The biggest struggle, quite frankly, as Waco continues to expand, is coverage. We know that out the [Highway] 84 corridor, there are a number of homes being built, and we really struggle to provide coverage in those areas. China Spring is another area where we struggle to provide coverage. Long-term, those are the types of things we’re going to be taking a look at, as to how we acquire property to make sure that we can build adequate parks in those areas. Or opportunities to partner with other agencies to build parks or partner with the community to build parks.

WACOAN: Going out Highway 84 from Waco, you get into Woodway. Then does Waco continue on the other side of Woodway?

Williams: Yes, it kind of leapfrogs Woodway and Hewitt. If you look at Twin Rivers and Harris Creek, there are a number of new homes that have been built in that area. We have a trailhead for the Cotton Belt Trail in Harris Creek, and there’s a small park called Trail Blazer Park that we put out there, but we’re still in the process of developing that park.

WACOAN: And then in the China Spring area, how far out are the Waco city limits?

Williams: It goes out to the big Waco water tower. It goes quite a ways out. There have been a number of new home developments in that area, and we just haven’t put any parks in yet. That’s a challenge for us.

WACOAN: What else interesting did you learn from the survey?

Williams: One of the things that was interesting was there’s a real need for an all-inclusive park. That’s something that’s real near and dear to my heart.

If we can provide in our park system the level of access to individuals — whether they’re children or parents — because sometimes we have parents who may be wheelchair-bound, who would like to get out there and swing their toddler.

The way most parks have been built over the years is you have these chips or mulch in the swing set areas. It’s hard to wheelchair your kid out there. All of our parks, by law, are ADA-accessible, meaning you can get to the parks. That doesn’t mean that it’s all-inclusive in the sense that someone can wheelchair into an area. There are some types of apparatuses that you can actually wheel up to and lock a wheelchair into a swing and be able to swing without having to come out of your wheelchair. They have other types of play equipment for kids who may have sensory types of issues, where you can bang on drums or xylophones, those kinds of things. It gives them an opportunity to recreate and have fun just like any other kid. There is a desire by the community to implement something like that in the city of Waco.

WACOAN: Is there anything in particular that made all-inclusive parks ‘dear to your heart,’ as you said?

Williams: Yeah. I’ve worked around kids for a good number of years. I’ve seen kids who aren’t necessarily included. My youngest son Ethan had a friend named Richie when he was in the first grade. Richie was in a wheelchair. We would take Ethan to Richie’s house, and when he came home, he was talking about Richie and how some other little kids made fun of him. My kids have always gravitated toward those kids who maybe didn’t appear to be as normal, if you will, as other kids, even though they are. Even though they have a physical disability, these kids are just as smart as any other kids, but they can’t participate. They can’t play the same way other kids can play. If we’re going to be an inclusive community, we owe it to everyone in the community to be inclusive.

WACOAN: Aside from the all-inclusive parks, what else are you excited about in the master plan?

Williams: The other thing I’m excited about and that came up high on the list is trails. People wanted us to incorporate more trails into our park system.

When I was in Indianapolis, just before I left, we finished up the Greenways Master Plan. And there were a number of different trails we were building. We had a mayor there that had a vision to tie the entire city of Indianapolis into a trail system, and we were getting there. It’s a great opportunity for people to recreate, but it also offers your community an opportunity to attract a lot of people, whether they want to come there for recreation purposes or because they want to live there because you have those kinds of amenities.

Throughout the country trails have been a catalyst for economic development and growth. You have to get beyond the NIMBY, not-in-my-backyard syndrome, where people feel like if you put a trail down this corridor, people are going to have access to my property. They have access to your property anyway. If you have a trail and people out there are walking on the trail, they are your eyes and ears as well. In Indianapolis, we looked at crime and things of that nature, and in those areas [with trails], crime was not an issue.

In fact, one of the larger, more prominent trails, the Monon Trail, the old Monon Railroad system, property along that one stretch went up about 14 percent in property value over a number of years because of the trails. When we did the study, that’s one thing we looked at, how [trails] impact property and the value of property, and it has a positive net effect on property values.

We were working on the Pennsy Rail-Trail, on the old Pennsy Railroad that went running east and west in Indianapolis, and before I left, we were just about to finish up on a 2-mile stretch of it. After I left, they had the ribbon-cutting, and a friend sent me a link to what the mayor said, and he said there were three small businesses that had developed along the Pennsy Trail in that short period of time. So we know there’s some economic development.

But more importantly, from a parks perspective, it gives people the opportunity to recreate. You want a healthy community, and trails provide an avenue for people to be healthy. I’ve lost about 30 pounds or so, and my doctor, years ago, told me, if you just walk 30 or 45 minutes a day, that would significantly impact your health. Just walking. So if people have trails and access to trails, just think about how much more vibrant your community can be if people are walking and becoming healthy.

WACOAN: And did I read about a program that pairs students from Indian Spring Middle School with park rangers?

Williams: Yeah, we’re doing that now.

What Indian Spring Middle School is trying to do is incorporate service learning for their students. Our portion of that is we try to give the opportunity to get outdoors and understand the biology, the geology of our parks and give them some type of basis of understanding of how to be good stewards of the environment. So with learning about the waterways, when they put them out on the kayak, they’re not just out there kayaking. They show them the different types of habitats and all the birds. They even talk about the importance of no-wake zones and what that means. It gives them an understanding that when the water starts lapping the shores, it’s eroding the shores, so you don’t want that. It gives kids the opportunity to understand their environment.

WACOAN: What do you like best about working in parks and recreation?

Williams: The thing I like best about parks and rec really goes back to the genesis of why I got into government. It kind of took me full circle.

I love sports. I played sports in high school. I coached sports. My sons played AAU basketball. One of my sons played college basketball. But 20 years ago, if you would have asked me if I was going to be a parks and rec director, I would have said, ‘No way. I want to impact people’s lives.’ That’s why I got into government.

When the mayor of Indianapolis asked me to take over parks and rec, he also asked me if I would consider being the director of the public works department. I was deputy director of public works at that time. The director of public works said, ‘I want you to do my job when I retire.’ The mayor said he had two positions he was thinking about, parks and recreation and public works. He said, ‘I know you can do public works, but I want you in parks and recreation.’ I went home and talked to my wife and she said, ‘Do the parks job. It’ll be less stressful.’

I thought parks might be a fun thing to do. It would be a change. I’ve worked in code enforcement. I’ve worked in solid waste. I’ve done fleet services, making sure we have public safety vehicles on the road. I’ve done a number of things that I believe are impactful to people’s lives, but parks and recreation impacts individuals on a personal level.

It made me think about when I was a kid growing up and didn’t have a father, and I would go play basketball at the recreation centers. And those old dudes out there playing basketball, they put something into me: ‘Stay in school. Use basketball as a tool to get you where you want to be.’ I didn’t think about that until I became an adult, and I realized those individuals played a very important role in my life, and they filled a void. A lot of kids who grow up in tough situations don’t have those voids filled.

The thing I really started out to do has come full circle in parks because that’s what we do every day. We give kids an opportunity to have impactful adults in their lives when they don’t have them. Sometimes we’re the most stable adult person that’s in their lives, and that’s impactful.

WACOAN: Once you’ve done everything you can in parks and rec, where would you like to see yourself down the road?

Williams: I’m a big-picture kind of person, so I would love to get into city management. That’s initially what I came here to try and do. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get an assistant city manager’s job, but they saw something in me and decided to offer me the parks job. And I’m blessed and thankful for that.

But I think that being at a higher level gives me the opportunity to not just look at parks, but look at how we can impact the lives of our community with economic development. How you take the community and move it in the right direction so it’s going to be beneficial to all those who live in that community. How you strategically place yourself as being a community of choice, where people will want to come and live and work and play. I can’t do that globally in the parks and recreation department. To a certain extent, I can because we can create opportunities for people wanting to be here by creating great parks for healthy purposes, trail systems, things of that nature. We can certainly do that, and they are draws to the community. But there are other things that I think the community has to be considerate of, such as building better roads and making sure the economic engine is well-oiled and working well and inviting for a community.

I think as my career progresses I’ll be perfectly happy to be here in parks and recreation, but I will also seek out opportunities to get into higher senior-level management.

WACOAN: In the couple of years that you’ve been here, how have you seen Waco change?

Williams: I think in the short time that I’ve been here, it really has a lot to do with the Gaineses [Chip and Joanna]. It really has a lot to do with this whole [Magnolia] Silos effect. I’ve seen this fever, if you will, of individuals wanting to come to Waco and see what is so unique.

I’ve talked to a number of people, like standing at the bus stops when I’m walking around doing my job, who said they came to Waco for the Silos. [I ask,] ‘What else do you like about Waco?’ [They say,] ‘Oh, we like the mammoth site. We didn’t know you guys had a national park here.’ [I say,] ‘It’s recent. The Waco Mammoth National Monument has been [known] as the Waco mammoth site. It was designated by President Obama as a national park.’ Just those kinds of things. [They say,] ‘We didn’t know you had such vistas. We drove up to Lover’s Leap, and we looked out, and it was so beautiful.’

My wife, talking to friends back in Indianapolis, there have been a number of them who have been down here, not necessarily to visit us, but they’ve been here to the Silos. Then they’ll text her or email her and say, ‘I didn’t know Waco was so beautiful.’ Yeah, it really is. I think that spirit of rejuvenation is alive and well here in Waco.

WACOAN: Coming from a bigger city like Indianapolis, what do you see that Waco needs?

Williams: In the realm of my job, I don’t think it needs much, other than trying to develop a level of connectivity from a trail system standpoint.

The transit system does a very good job as it is, but I think expanding on the transit system would be good for the city of Waco. I think it would be important for people to have multiple or varying modes of transportation throughout the city.

I think from an economic development standpoint, you have a great asset in the waterway. If you look at all the major cities that have really focused on their waterways, those communities have seen some real significant and sustained economic development along those waterways, and I think Waco has an opportunity to do that. [The proposed developments along the Brazos River] will certainly be some impetus for others to want to be here and create those kinds of economic opportunities for the city of Waco.

WACOAN: What do you and your wife like most about Waco?

Williams: I guess the thing that we really like the most is the friendliness of the people. We like the hometown feeling. In a microcosm, it’s like Indianapolis. It’s a smaller community, but it really does have that hometown feel. Indianapolis is a slow-moving big city. Waco is a little slower pace. But you can also go to Dallas, Austin, San Antonio if you want to experience the big city kinds of things that happen in those areas.

But Waco does offer some of those things here. It does have a symphony. The college sports are great here. Being a college sports junkie, that’s one of the things that I like. More importantly, just this whole feeling of hometown, the folks being friendly and accepting has been the thing that we like the most.

WACOAN: Besides college sports, if you and your wife have a date night, what would you do?

Williams: [Laughs] Sit at home and binge-watch TV. I know that sounds corny.

We’ve grown up together. We’ve been together over 33 years and been married for 31. When we met, I was a freshman in college, and she still was in high school. So we’ve been together all that time. I’ve been blessed to have her. The best time we have, quite frankly, is just sitting at home, binge-watching TV.

WACOAN: What do you watch?

Williams: We watch a number of things. We just finished up on ‘Game of Thrones.’

We love those period-type shows: ‘The Borgias,’ ‘The Tudors.’ She likes a lot of history, so those kinds of period-type series, we do like those.

WACOAN: Did you watch ‘Parks and Recreation’?

Williams: [Laughs] Yes, I watched it quite a bit back in Indianapolis. They filmed a couple of episodes at Eagle Creek Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country. I tried to get on the show, but they wouldn’t let me.

WACOAN: Do you have a church home here?

Williams: Unfortunately, we don’t. We have tried a few churches here, but we would like to find a church home because our relationship with Christ is very important to us. We raised our kids that way. We’ve been that way all of our adult lives. We know what our relationship with Christ is, and we know the importance of having a church home family, so we’ve tried a number of churches. We’re still searching.

WACOAN: It can take a while.

Williams: It can. Unfortunately, I’m stubborn because I study the Bible and I look at a lot of different things, and that’s good and bad. I critique when I go. I say, ‘Are they lining up with the word of God?’ That’s not a good thing, but that’s who I am. But God knows. He’s chastised me on that note too.

But it’s important for us to find the right church home because we have been part of a church back in Indianapolis, when I was in Bloomington, in the military in Germany. We’ve had some great [churches]. Our best friends today, we met them in church. We want to find that right place that’s a good fit for us.

WACOAN: Have you read anything good lately?

Williams: I’ve been reading a business book, ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’ [by Marshall Goldsmith]. He went to business school at Indiana University, has an MBA from there.

The interesting thing about this book is that he interviewed Jack Welch, who was the CEO of GE. While I was in graduate school, I actually worked at GE in Bloomington, building refrigerators, so I got an opportunity to hear a lot about Mr. Welch. I’ve seen a number of things on TV with him talking about growing the company. [Goldsmith] talked about the experiences that he’s had with these CEOs of corporations, and oftentimes they see a need to change and continue to evolve. Some of the things that you stood on as pillars as your career was developing that you believe got you to where you are are not going to get you to where you need to go. You may have to change, and sometimes you may have to change in ways you didn’t think you were capable of or want to change.

I talk a lot about leadership with staff, and I’ve done a couple of series on leadership and what that means. I believe leadership is something that you’re mostly born with. There are some things that you can give people through training. For me, I’m looking for ways in which I can improve myself, knowing that there’s a certain personality I have, and that personality is what anchors me into who I am leadership-wise.

WACOAN: What’s your greatest strength as a leader?

Williams: I think my greatest strength is humility. I don’t have to be right. I don’t have to be the person who has all the greatest and brightest ideas.

Sometimes people will mistake humility for either inaction or lack of confidence, but some of the most humble people are some of the brightest individuals I’ve come across.

I had an NCO in the military, Sgt. Anderson. Sgt. Anderson was a quiet man. He was a tall guy — he was about 6-foot-3 — but he was quiet. He knew what to say and when to say it. Sgt. Anderson was kind of the epitome for me, a young man coming up through the military who knew in the moment when to be kind, when to be gentle, when to be stern. Sgt. Anderson just had that.

Now they’re talking about ‘situational leadership.’ For me, I’ve always said being in the moment, being able to make the right decisions in the moment — you can’t put a cookie cutter on every situation. And I learned in the military that having rank or status doesn’t necessarily make you a leader. You may be put in a position of power. It may give you the authority to be over someone, but it doesn’t make you a leader.

That’s a lot like parenting. You have to know when you have to lay down the law. You have to come down hard with the hammer, and you have to be willing to do that, and you do it in respect and love. And you do that at work. You do discipline in the way that you do not separate from your employee, but you create a level of respect that keeps their dignity intact. There are people who can do that, and it’s just something that they are innately able to do. Then there are others who just can’t. You can’t make a person compassionate if they’re not compassionate.

That’s how I lead. I don’t know any other way to do it. You mete out compassion when you need to. You mete out the discipline when you need to. You get people to understand that they’re here because they chose to be here. I can’t force you to be here. You were hired because you applied for a job. There’s a choice. And so my job is to coach you and help you become the best you that you can be and really work as hard for you as you work for me.

WACOAN: You also teach a government class at MCC. What do you hope to get across to your students?

Williams: The biggest thing that I hope to get across is the importance of participation. I think if I can do that, I’ve done my job as an educator.

Growing up as a poor kid, the youngest of six, my mother had a sixth-grade education, and my father passed away when I was 3 years old. So growing up in a situation like that, you hear a lot about what the government should and should not do. I was blessed with a mother who, though she didn’t have an education, for me, it stuck when she said, ‘Get an education.’ She couldn’t show me how to do that.

I was blessed with some athletic ability and played sports, and I was blessed with teachers that saw something in me and encouraged me to continue on in my education, even though I wanted to do some of the same things my friends were doing. The teachers said, ‘You’re a smart kid, John. You can go to college.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to play sports.’ They said, ‘You can go to college even if you don’t play sports.’ So being the first person in my family to go to college, the first person to graduate from high school in my family, was something that was important to my mother. She was proud of that.

This whole idea of education and teaching students is to get them to a point of understanding that if you participate in the system and participate in what’s going on, you have more impact. If nothing else, at least you have knowledge of what’s going on and why it’s being done the way it’s being done.

WACOAN: In my other job, I teach journalism at Baylor. And some of the discussions I’ve had there is about how tough it is for first-generation college students whose parents didn’t go to college. So they often don’t have any help at home in navigating the system. How did you manage that?

Williams: There are a couple of things. I believe in divine intervention. I believe that God put something in me that I wanted to be educated. As a matter of fact, my friends would call me Mr. Professor, and I didn’t take that as a compliment at the time. I just had a desire to know things. Even in school, I didn’t want to be the act-up in class. I wanted to be a smart kid. I think that’s something that was just innate in me. Even though I wasn’t the smartest kid in the school and I wasn’t one of the hardest workers, a lot of what I was able to accomplish in high school was simply because of innate ability. And that hurt me going into college. Not having that support system like I had in high school.

Teachers like Mr. Huffman, who was in charge of the Distributive Education Clubs of America [DECA]. He liked to play basketball, and we would play basketball together. Having this guy who was not the same race that I am, who didn’t grow up the same way I grew up, encourage me to continue on with my studies. Mrs. Redding, who was an accounting teacher. When I graduated high school, her husband was in HR in a regional chain grocery store where I worked. She said, ‘Call my husband, and he’ll help you get your job transferred to Bloomington when you go to college.’ And she had a desire to see me be successful.

But when I got to college, I learned that I didn’t have good study habits because things just came easy enough [in high school]. I was an honor student. I graduated in a class of about 350, and I was in the top 50 of my class. I thought I was doing pretty good. But when I got to college, I learned that when you go to a psychology class at a big university, you’ve got a hundred-something people in there. You’re not the only person in the room, and these folks are smart. And they study. It was a struggle for me initially.

I met my wife, and we had a child early. Those things impacted my life, and they were a struggle. But I went to the military. I came back, and life experience kind of taught me something. Military kind of taught me something about being focused, so I got focused and I was able to go to school.

All that being said, first and foremost, it was something that God put into me. And then just relying on some of the experiences I had with people who said I could do it and not wanting to let myself down and let those folks down as well. And having a family drove me to try to become successful and not have my children have a life the way that I had when I was coming up.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know?

Williams: Well, I love doing what I do. I have a passion for people. This is what I try to tell my boys: ‘You can’t take anything out of this world, but you can leave something.’ The Bible talks about a good name. I try to teach them that there’s nothing more precious than your name. And I try to make my mother proud of her name, our name. I think that’s the most important thing to me — having a passion for people and having a good name.

And people who see you do your work, they know the passion that’s behind it and that what you are trying to accomplish is not just about yourself. It’s about others and helping others reach their full potential. That’s really what it’s about for me.

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