Joe Barsh Is Not Playing Around

Alum Joe Barsh, Executive Director of Williston Parks and Recreation.
Joe Barsh ('14)

April 04, 2024
Sydney Fluker ('24)

Two weeks after graduating from Gonzaga in 2014, Joe Barsh arrived in Williston, North Dakota, ready to serve as a summer intern for Williston Parks and Recreation.

At that time, Gonzaga’s Summer in Williston internship program was in its second year of operation, having begun as a result of the energy development boom at the Bakken Shale, an underground rock formation containing massive deposits of natural gas and oil. Gonzaga alumni and Williston-raised brothers Jim (’79) and Tom Powers (’77) saw an opportunity for partnership between the city and the University, and now the program sends 15-20 students each summer to the western North Dakota city to intern at local businesses and organizations.

After his summer internship, Barsh, who studied sports management, joined the staff at the Parks & Rec office. Ten years later, he’s its executive director.

“Recreation is a passion of mine,” Barsh says. “I love working with people directly and running different events and programs throughout the community. I love the process – to see the fulfillment then start it all over again and keep building on the successes and learning from the failures.”

Today, Barsh remains as involved as possible with the programs and events he loves, but with a big-picture focus on overseeing staff, funding, and working with the city and business leaders.

“It’s just hard to call it ‘work’ because my job is ever-changing and very fulfilling. I’m at the baseball field a lot in the summer, I’m constantly traveling around checking on parks, facilities and programs, and in a lot of ways, I get to call it play,” Barsh says.

“Working with community members on projects that give life to our city is a joy. You see so much passion in people when they’re invested, so it’s fulfilling.”

“I’m very fortunate to be in this position.”

He makes it sound easy, but in reality, Barsh is overseeing an updated master plan for the park district, an expansion of the municipal golf course from nine holes to 18 and preparing for a new outdoor waterpark scheduled to open in 2025.

Staying Connected to Students

The internships that jumpstarted Barsh’s career continue to be available to students through Gonzaga’s Career and Professional Development Center.

Barsh and his wife, Shelby, their 4-month- old son AJ and their dog, Magic, welcome summer interns to Williston with dinner at their home. He helps students connect with the community as much as possible.

“This is a community that has a lot of money to invest in itself,” says Karen Rickel, associate professor and chair of the kinesiology and sport management department at Gonzaga. “It’s a giant athletic center, but it’s also a community place. It is solely devoted to people getting physical activity and movement, and that is what our department is all about.”

Rickel served as Barsh’s adviser during his time at Gonzaga, and the two continue to partner to serve both students and the Williston community. Barsh joins Rickel’s class each semester via Zoom to speak about the program and his experience, which Rickel says is a highlight of her semester.

“He’s just such an amazing representation of Gonzaga,” Rickel says. “I’m so proud to see him thrive and work his way up to the top level.”

This story was featured in Gonzaga Magazine - Read more stories from this issue!