Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 5
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
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EXECUTIVE ORDER: Ben Stentz keeps order around the Community Park courts as the commissioner of the Princeton Recreation Department Summer Men’s Basketball League. Stentz was recently promoted to Executive Director of the Rec Department in the wake of the retirement of longtime head Jack Roberts.

Ex-Gym Rat Stentz Heading Rec Department Employing Work Ethic, ‘Do-Right’ Approach

Bill Alden

Upon moving to Princeton in 1982, it took Ben Stentz about 24 hours to come in contact with the town’s Recreation Department.

“We had lived in Northern Jersey for a while and we moved to Princeton in January,” said Stentz, a grade schooler at the time.

“According to the way my mom tells it, it was a Friday and the next morning the first thing my dad did was to march me up to Dillon Gym because he heard there was a basketball league there. We believe that the first person we met in town was Jack Roberts [Rec Department Executive Director]. That was back when he was on site every Saturday and ran the league.”

As the young Stentz became a denizen of the Dillon program, he made a mixed impression on Roberts.

“He was a pain in the neck,” said Roberts with a laugh. “He laughed a lot and fooled around a lot. He was not a bad kid, he was not one of the kids that we had to kick out of the pool everyday.”

The likeable rogue Stentz developed into a hoops and baseball standout at Princeton High and went on to play and coach hoops at Mercer County Community College.

After leaving MCCC, Stentz moved up the coaching ladder and worked as an assistant coach at Clarion University.

He returned to Princeton in 1999 and worked at the YMCA for six months before getting hired as the Program Supervisor at the Rec Department.

Now, the former gym rat is taking over the operation, having been promoted to Executive Director in the wake of Roberts’ retirement.

While Stentz didn’t envision running the department when he started there a decade ago, he quickly realized that he loved his work.

“I don’t remember thinking that I am going to be here for a long time,” said the amiable Stentz, 36, whose round face frequently breaks into a grin.

“Whether I knew it at that time or not, this job became an unbelievable blessing for me. I really do enjoy what I do. The thing that I always come back to is the interaction with the kids and watching them enjoy these programs. I love seeing the looks on the kids’ faces when they are playing basketball or when they first learn how to swim or the first time they get up enough courage to go off a high dive.”

It was the lessons that Stentz learned during his PHS hoops career that first put him on the path to his current role.

“I would relate it mostly to basketball and mostly the influence that Doug Snyder [PHS basketball head coach] had on me,” said Stentz, who points to the team’s 1992 sectional title during his senior season as the highlight of his athletic career.

“It relates to a lot of what we do here — the influence of coaching and the life lessons learned through sports. Doug taught me how to be accountable through trial and error and tough love. Those lessons are the things that I find myself using everyday in my professional life and in my personal life with my son.”

For Stentz, that approach boils down to some bedrock principles. “First, you put in the work and the results will come,” added Stentz, who points with pride to the Rec Department programs like summer camps, basketball leagues, and Community Park lifeguarding that have employed hundreds of teenagers over the years.

“It may take longer than you want it to take but the results will come. It is also just doing the right thing. That’s the rule I live by and try to pass on to a lot of our teen employees — the ‘Do Right’ rule. You do right by people and things work out.”

In the view of Snyder’s deep influence on Stentz, it is not surprising that he found his way into coaching. After going to MCCC and playing point guard on a team that made it to the junior college quarterfinals, Stentz hung up his sneakers to accelerate his studies.

But Stentz couldn’t stay away from the gym and was soon transitioning into a coaching role.

“I was on the perimeter helping out the head coach Bud Livingston for a year,” recalled Stentz.

“In the following year, I was hired to be Bud’s assistant and I stayed there for three years. Those were great years; that is a great place for anyone who is interested in learning coaching. You talk about the chance to jump in and do it all — planning practices, scouting, game planning, and recruiting.”

Stentz moved up the coaching ladder, heading to Clarion University, a Division II program in western Pennsylvania. He served as an assistant coach there from 1997-1999 and earned a degree in communications in his spare time.

In the wake of a head coaching change, Stentz decided to come back to Princeton in 1999 and took a job working with the YMCA. Through an old friend, Cheryl Perez, Stentz learned of an opening across town.

“Cheryl was at the Rec Department and she gave me the heads up that there might be an opening there that could turn into a full time job,” said Stentz.

“When that happened, I applied and I started here in December 2000 as a program supervisor. It started off as mostly a basketball thing with the Dillon League, summer, and travel stuff but it grew. It has evolved into all the summer camp stuff with lacrosse and basketball.”

After a decade on the job, Stentz jumped at the chance to become Executive Director.

“I felt the time was right for me to apply for this job,” said Stentz, whose work as the commissioner of the Summer Men’s Basketball League has turned it into a community fixture.

“Looking at the things I have been doing here for 10 years, I have no doubt that our team here and me being part of it made those things better. I worked hard to identify what could be better about them and helped them to grow. I started to feel I needed a different challenge so the timing was good.”

Stentz knows he faces some big challenges as he takes over for Roberts. “Everybody in the office is working on the pool all day, every day,” said Stentz, referring to the project for updating the Community Park Pool.

“One of my early goals is to put together a new team. We are down two professional staff people and we are trying to find dynamic, experienced recreation pros.”

As he deals with his new responsibilities, Stentz will draw on the experience of working for mentor Roberts.

“If there is a gold standard of recreation professionals in this country, Jack Roberts is it,” said Stentz.

“He is the whole package; he has never lost sight of what this is really about — creating opportunities for people and families to participate and stay active. His calm demeanor and his practical way of doing things and fairness in all directions is just remarkable.”

Roberts, for his part, views Stentz as an ideal successor. “I couldn’t have any more confidence in someone to do this job well than Ben,” maintained Roberts.

“The way I would describe Ben is that he is wise beyond his years. He has a great bedside manner; I have heard him deal many times with upset parents and smooth things over. He is level headed, very reasonable, and articulate. He has rapport with all segments of the community. He always prepares things to a fault. He has never disappointed us here; he has worked hard from day one.”

For Stentz, that work ethic will be the hallmark of his tenure from beginning to end.

“If you are going to do this job right, you can’t be the kind of person who is looking at the clock and wondering when to punch out,” said Stentz, who typically arrives at the office at 7:30 a.m. and leaves around 5:30 p.m. most of the year with the summer schedule extending his work days to 10:30 p.m.

“For as long as I am here, I am going to commit to the fact that I am not going to let anyone outwork me and I am going to expect the same from the staff here. I keep telling them that we are going to try to be great today. We won’t always be great and sometimes we will mess up but I guarantee you we will be back tomorrow trying to be great.”

And it appears that the Rec Department is in great hands with Stentz taking the helm.

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