The More-or-Less Annual George R. Stewart, Jimmy Stewart Christmas Post

Time to re-post this story of the close connections between George R. Stewart and Jimmy Stewart, and between the mythical It’s a Wonderful Life town of Bedford Falls and the real Indiana, Pennsylvania, boyhood home of both Stewarts.  Christmas ispast, but Little Christmas awaits.  And since the iconic film ends with “Auld Lang Syne” this is perfect for New Year, 2019.  

It’s a Wonderful Life is still popular on local screens around the country:  This year, the local Carson City, Nevada, Galaxy Theater showed the film twice on the Saturday before Christmas.  

Long may it live.

(Don’t miss the interview with one of the stars at the end of this post.)

bedford_falls

It’s A Wonderful Story

This is the time of year when most of us watch the classic Christmas movies.  A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sims, Miracle on 54th Street, A Child’s Christmas in Wales,   (An almost unknown gem, produced in Canada, starring Denholm Elliot); and, of course,  It’s a Wonderful Life.

In Arroyo Grande the local theater,  owned by a man who loves movies, shows one of those classics each Christmas. The admission is a can of food or a toy, to be donated to those in need – in the spirit of the movie.  …To see such a film on the big screen, surrounded by local neighbors of all ages – to see how the children love the film – it is a reminder of what we’ve lost.  Now we watch movies on TV, but usually alone, and always less intently – a kind of a digital sampling of the films.  Like a CD, we miss much when we do that.  But in the theater watching Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street  we missed nothing.  And – how long since you’ve experienced this? – the audience clapped and cheered when the judge decided that, yes, Kris Kringle was indeed Santa Claus.  It was a fine traditional twentieth century American Christmas experience.

its_a_wonderful_life_002

For most of the people I know, It’s a Wonderful Life   is the Christmas movie.  So those who are George R. Stewart fans should know about the connection between that classic film and GRS.

George R. Stewart was raised in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his mother’s family lived.  His maternal grandfather, Andrew Wilson,  planned to be a teacher, and even helped found a school nearby (which would become the prestigious Kiski School).  But he couldn’t earn enough to support his family; so he went into the mercantile business.  He  had a hand in a hardware store there, owned by another Stewart.  That Stewart’s son was James Stewart, also born and raised in Indiana.

George and Jimmy looked alike.  With all the similarities in family history, geography, and physiology, you’d expect they were related.  But they  shared only one possible distant relative.  And they lived in different worlds, in Indiana.  The George Stewarts went to the middle-class Presbyterian church on the flats; Jimmy Stewart and his parents went to the upper-class Presbyterian church on the hill.  GRS went to a public high school out west, Jimmy to a prestigious private school in the east.

Still, the lives paralleled in remarkable ways.  GRS and his family moved to Pasadena; he went to Princeton; and after marriage moved his family to Berkeley, California.  Jimmy went to Princeton, then moved to Pasadena; and spent his life in Southern California.  GRS wrote books, two of which were filmed.  Jimmy made films, like that grand Christmas classic we all love.   GRS worked at the Disney studios for a time, an advisor to Walt himself.  Jimmy worked at many studios, creating characters and stories that touched the hearts of millions.  Ironically, GRS did not like the media, and apparently did not attend movies often, if at all.

Their paths apparently never crossed.  GRS and his family left Indiana for California in 1905, when he was 12.  That was the year James Stewart was born. Out west, nothing in their interests or their work brought them together.  Since the film we now consider a classic failed in its initial run, it is unlikely GRS would have seen it even if he did go to the movies.

Yet, in this Christmas season, we should remember there is one thing they shared; and thanks to the film, we share it with them:  The experience of life in a small American town in the early 20th century.  Like a trip to Disneyland, a viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life enfolds us in such a place.  For a time, we walk the streets and meet the people of the town and the time where both boys grew up.

Here’s a passage from the biography of Stewart,  about Indiana, Pennsylvania, as Bedford Falls:

George R. Stewart’s boyhood town was so archetypically American that it could pass for George Bailey’s “Bedford Falls” in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. In fact, the town was “Bedford Falls” – at least for the movie’s male star. Indiana, Pennsylvania, was also the boyhood home of James Stewart, who played “George Bailey” in Capra’s film.   Although the movie’s “Bedford Falls” was built on a studio backlot in the San Fernando Valley, Jimmy Stewart said that when he walked onto the set for the first time he almost expected to hear the bells of his home church in Indiana.

Each year, Indiana holds an It’s a Wonderful Life Festival, with a parade, hot chocolate,  tree lighting, and continuous showings of the film at the Jimmy Stewart Museum.  It’s a winter festival; so the people lining the streets in their warm clothing bring life to a snow-bound town, like the movie brings life to the streets of the movie set town.

(The film’s Producer Director, Frank Capra, apparently modeled his set on the upstate New York town of Seneca Falls; but for Jimmy Stewart, star of the movie, Indiana, Pennsylvania, where he and George R. Stewart grew up, was the place he kept in his heart when he brought George Bailey to life.)

This Christmas, when you watch Capra’s great film (which, by the way, is playing here Christmas Eve, this year of 2016), give a thought to the boyhood of George R. Stewart.  Keep in mind that GRS celebrated his Christmases in a town which for Jimmy Stewart was the model for iconic, American, Bedford Falls.

Merry Christmas to all.

PS.  And here’s a Christmas gift, for 2016 readers – a link to the radio interview with “Tommy Bailey,”  one of the Bailey children growing up in Bedford Falls, setting for It’s a Wonderful Life. 

Waiting with Bated Breath: Will We Hear George R. Stewart reading his manuscript of Earth Abides?

UCB_Doe_7The Bancroft Library, nestled between the Campanile and the Doe Library,

University of California, Berkeley

Photo copyright: MikkiPiperImaging.com   Used with permission.

 

The Bancroft Library will digitize recordings of several manuscripts recorded by George R. Stewart.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, GRS decided to record his drafts.  (Before this, his drafts were written with sharp pencils, so he always kept a wad of sharpened pencils near his desk).  Since tape recorders were not available,  we believe he used the Dictaphone or a similar system.

Over the years of researching and writing about Stewart and his works, the idea of finding those recordings and digitizing them never went away.  But the big question was whether or not the Bancroft Library had the ability to digitize fragile recordings from an “ancient” format – if they existed and could be found.

Then, this week, a message came from the Bancroft Library:

I am happy to let you know that we are finally moving forward with digitizing the SoundScriber discs created (we believe) by George.  The process has taken quite awhile as we switched from our original plan of having them digitized by our normal vendor to having them digitized by a somewhat new and much less invasive process.
Our normal audio vendor is set up to digitize physical audio formats, like the SoundScriber discs, by playing the disc on a machine with a stylus, much like you would listen to a record a home.  The player is connected to some fancy equipment that records a digital file of the audio.  The SoundScriber discs are extremely fragile and their inherent fragility means that playing them once might completely erase the audio.  We were very nervous about the fragility and spent some time researching other methods of digitization that could mitigate the harm to the physical media.  Luckily for us UC Berkeley is the home to Project IRENE, which is a project team that works on digitizing obsolete media using optics.  
 
They have spent the last few years working on wax cylinders from the Phoebe Hearst Museum and the Library of Congress.  We brought the possibility of the SoundScriber process to them and they were excited for a new challenge.  They have now purchased new equipment to allow for their existing equipment to “play” SoundScriber discs and we plan to start digitizing the George Rippey Stewart discs soon.
 
As you can see from the Project IRENE website, they make as much of the material they digitize available as possible.  We would like to know if you would be amenable to us making the material available to researchers in the following ways:
 
1. in the Reading Room at The Bancroft Library
2. on the internet at one of our collection sites and/or through the Project IRENE site (without downloading capabilities for researchers)
 
The material has not yet been digitized so we still do not know what is actually on the recordings.  Please let me know what questions, comments, concerns you may have about making this material available to researchers.
MML,
Permission and Access Officer

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
lange@berkeley.edu

 

The answer to the letter was a resounding “YES!” — from the GRS family and those of us sharing George R. Stewart with scholars, artists, and the general literate world.

And so it begins.

Ø Ø Ø

The backstory of events that brought us to this point is full of twists and turns.  It depended on the hard work of GRS Helpers, including Michael Ward, Keeper of the George R. Stewart Wikipedia pages.

I had contacted the Bancroft as a somewhat-anonymous scholar wondering about digitizing the recordings. But Stewart left strict instructions with the Bancroft:  No one was to listen to those recordings without his specific written permission.  When GRS passed away in 1980, permission would need to come from the family’s holder of copyright.

The Bancroft Librarians began searching for the family keeper of permissions.   Discovering Mike’s excellent GRS website they contacted him, asking if he could direct them to the person who could authorize the digitization and sharing of the recordings.Mike directed the Bancroft to me.

I connected them with Ed Stewart, GRS’s grandson, who manages permissions since his father Jack Stewart’s death.  Ed quickly gave his ok.

The Librarians began the process of finding the best and safest way to transfer those fragile old recordings to modern digitized form.   The letter explains the next steps they’ll take to preserve those treasures of literature.

bancroft-reading

Heller Reading Room, The Bancroft Library

The Bancroft Library is one of the great literary repositories on Earth.  Their collections include ancient papyrus texts, 49er diaries and journals (including those of the Donner Party), the Papers of the founders of the National Park Service and the Wilderness Society, and Mark Twain.  (Clemens’ family insisted on the Bancroft.)  And  the Bancroft holds the Papers of George R. Stewart, soon, we hope, to include his recordings of several of his manuscripts.*

Of course, as the Bancroft Librarian says, we don’t yet know exactly what’s on those recordings.  But there is good evidence that some of them contain GRS’s reading and verbal notes on his great epic, Earth Abides.  That novel, never out of print, influenced writers like James Sallis and Stephen King (who based The Stand on Earth Abides), and composer-musicians including Phillip Aaberg and Jimi Hendrix (Hendrix was inspired to write Third Stone from the Sun by Stewart’s book). Stewart’s novel is one of the great inheritances from our time, to all time.

GRS Composer/Scholar Philip Aaberg’s new video from Montana’s HiLine, honoring the Montana Farmers’ Union.

The hope we may soon be able to hear GRS reading parts of the novel in draft form is, well,  stunning.  The idea that the Bancroft will share that with the world’s scholars is a credit to them and the tools of this age.

It has been a long journey, indeed full of twists and turns, aided along the way by critical helpers, as our small band of scholars seeks the holy grail:  To teach the literate world and the STEAM-thinking world about George R. Stewart’s books and his ideas.  Now, at a summit on the Stewart Trail, we appear to be close to receiving a boon.  That boon – hearing Stewart read his manuscripts –  will be shared with the world.

Whatever is on those recordings, I am infinitely grateful for the hard work of all who have brought GRS and his works to this point.

As digitizing progresses, I’ll send updates. Stay tuned.

Bancroft Ranger          National Park Service Ranger ready to do NPS research at the Bancroft Library

 

*The Bancroft uses donations to fund such special projects, and also accepts donations of exceptional items that are within the purview of their collections.  You might consider sending them a donation .

News About U.S. 40 and Earth Abides

Christmas and New Years are over, so there’s time to bring everyone up to date about recent George R. Stewart-related events.  The Donner Summit Historical Society reports some major work on US 40, a Route 66 leader has connected with this site through his interest in U.S. 40,  and there’s a new French translation of Earth Abides.

In the January issue of the Donner Summit Historical Society’s excellent online magazine, Donner Summit Heritage, Editor Bill Oudegeest includes articles on U.S. 40; one carries news about plans to upgrade the Historic Route over Donner Summit.   On page 14, there’s a review of a book about early travel over the road; on page 18, various items about U.S. 40, which begins with the notice of the road upgrade.    The current issue isn’t yet posted on the main DSHS pages; but will be soon.  However, if you become a paid member – and you should! – you’ll get the Heirloom every month.

U.S. 40 was, if any road was, the George R. Stewart Highway.  He hitchiked the eastern section in 1919, when it was still the National Old Trails Road, often drove it across the country, and finally wrote a classic book, the first popular “odology” (road geography) book, U.S. 40.  Stewart’s book led to another classic, Vale and Vale’s U.S. 40 Today:  Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America; the authors followed old U.S. 40 in 1983, re-photographing as many of his original locations as they could, describing landscape change in the thirty years since Stewart’s book was published.  A few years later Frank Brusca posted his wonderful U.S. 40 pages, with even more information about the historic highway and its current character.  Recently, in Roads To Quoz, William Least Heat Moon includes an entire section on Stewart and U.S. 40, opening the section with a quote from Stewart.

Finally, earlier this month, Fred Cain contacted me via Michael Ward’s wonderful George R. Stewart Wikipedia pages.  Fred is working on a plan to re-authorize U.S. 66 as a marked highway, not simply a series of older sections of the now-deauthorized highway.   As it turns out, Fred is also a great fan of Stewart’s U.S. 40 and Vale and Vale’s U.S. 40 Today.  We’ve been in an email conversation which includes Bill Oudegeest about getting better signage for the historic U.S. 40 Route.

Here’s a bonus for U.S. 40 historians and fans – a test photo for the book, never published. It’s from the Anna Evenson/George R. Stewart Family Collection, published here with permission.  (Please don’t republish it without Anna Evenson’s permission.  I can forward a request to her if you wish to use the photo.)

us 40 trials 187

 

GRS used a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex to take his photos.  The Rolleiflex is one of the great cameras of a great era in photography, when Edward Weston and Ansel Adams were creating their best works.  Stewart knew Adams, and there’s a letter in the GRS papers from Ansel Adams to Stewart.

The Rollei’s format is square, 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 inch, so the photos in the book are in that square format.  (35 mm and most digital cameras have a format that is longer than it is high.)

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Here’s the cover page of the new French translation of Stewart’s great novel, courtesy of Philippe Grand.

La-terre-demeure

Earth Abides, abides.

Kaplan and Kehlmann: Carrying the Torch of George R. Stewart Onward, I: Robert Kehlmann

Although George R. Stewart is not as well-known as other authors of his day, there is a distinguished band of people who know, value, and carry on his work.  Other authors, including Stephen King, Larry McMurtry, Christopher Priest, Wallace Stegner, William Least Heat Moon, Kim Stanley Robinson, and others, acknowledge GRS either openly through essays or quietly through references in their work. Walt Disney filmed two of Stewart’s books for the Disney TV show.   Stewart’s millions of fans, of course, keep his books alive; several, like Earth Abides,  are still good sellers.  And there are those who actively memorialize and share Stewart’s work.  Two of these are Robert Kehlmann of the Berkeley Plaque Project and Naturalist Emeritus Alan Kaplan.  This post focuses on Robert Kehlmann.

Raised in Brooklyn, New York, now living in Berkeley, California, Robert Kehlmann is a distinguished glass artist, a “painter with glass.” Initially trained in Literature, Kehlmann began to see paintings as similar to poems in their effects on the viewer; and he decided to produce new works of painterly glass “paintings” that would encourage that response.  He helped found a movement taking artistic glass from its traditional use in architecture to a more painterly use, in which glass becomes the “paint” of an artist’s work.  Kehlmann’s work is found in many collections, including the Oakland Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Corning Museum of Glass, New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, and others.

Kehlmann is active in historic preservation in Berkeley.  Former Director of the Landmark’s Preservation Commission in Berkeley, Kehlmann founded the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project in 1997.  On its elegantly designed site, the Plaque Project lists Berkeley historic sites and people with physical or online plaques.  One of those honored by Kehlmann’s project, byan ePlaque,  is  George R. Stewart.

(Also honored with an ePlaque is Wilder Bentley the Elder, and his family.   Bentley, an exceptional poet and printer, was a regular visitor at the former Thornton State Beach in the days Stewart and his family visited.  The Bentleys’ Archive Press published the first book of Ansel Adams’ photographs – a work which led to the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park.)

Kehlmann is one of several fine partners we work with in this tiny but determined project to honor the work of George R. Stewart and educate others about Stewart’s work.  He joins Bill Oudegeest of the Donner Summit Historical Society, who spearheaded the George R. Stewart Interpretive Plaque on Historic US 40 at Donner Summit, Phil and Patty Aaberg at Sweetgrass Music, who published Phil’s Earth Abides sheet music, Baiba Strads and the others of the Bancroft Library, and the select group of people who’ve dug into their pockets to fund or develop these works:  Steve Williams, Doug Raybeck, Junlin Pan, Joyce Colbath-Stewart, Dee and Barney Barney, Bob Lyon,  Beth Lapachet, Brian Byrne, Ross and Charlene Bogert, John and Angela Lucia, Willie Stewart, Paul F. Starrs.

And Alan Kaplan, subject of an upcoming post.

Eastend, Saskatchewan, Wallace Stegner, and George R. Stewart – a Reprise.

On this fine spring day in Carson City, Nevada, memories of Eastend, Saskatchewan, and its connection with George R. Stewart have burst out like the blossoming flowers visible from the window of this writer’s current roost.  That’s probably because I first saw Eastend as the snows of winter gave way to the flowers of spring, visible outside the window of the Wallace Stegner Boyhood Home.  So I reviewed the earlier post about Eastend and Stewart.  It’s been revised, upgraded and renewed.

Eastend is, in and of itself, worth a trip to Canada.  If you’re heading to visit Canada’s prairies or the Rockies, a side-trip to the town should be on your itinerary.  If you’re going to Idaho or nearby to see the August Total Eclipse, head a few hundred miles north to visit Eastend.  It will be a highlight of your trip.

The updated post follows.

About 16 years ago, quite by accident, I wandered into Eastend, Saskatchewan.  The tiny farm town in Saskatchewan’s southwest didn’t seem of much interest — until I noticed the T-Rex Laboratory in the middle of town.  Intrigued, I visited the lab, where  paleontologists were hard at work preparing the fossil bones of the most massive T-Rex ever discovered.

Eastend was apparently more than it seemed at first look, so I began to walk around the town.

In two blocks I realized the “accidental” visit was a classic Jungian  synchronicity.  A sign on the main street  pointed toward a modest home on a quiet street near the Frenchman River was “Wallace Stegner’s Boyhood Home.”   Stegner, who spent his boyhood years here,  was profoundly influenced by George R. Stewart.  Stegner wrote a fine essay about Stewart,  included in Stegner’s  WHERE THE BLUEBIRD SINGS TO THE LEMONADE SPRINGS.   In the George Rippey Stewart Papers at the Bancroft Library (See link in the header of this page) there are several wonderful letters from “Wally” Stegner to Stewart; in the Stegner Papers at the University of Utah, there are replies from Stewart.

Later, researching a chapter on the friendship between Stewart and Stegner, I found the website for the Boyhood Home (now a Canadian Heritage site). Restored by the hard work of local people, the house had become a residence for writers and artists.  They accepted my application; so I had the rare honor of living in Stegner House for several weeks over three visits.  And the pleasure of getting the chance to know Eastend and its wonderful people.  Some, like Charlie Goulet, are now gone; but I know if I drove into town tomorrow I’d soon run into Ken and Ethel Wills, Dick and Clora Banford, Tim and Jacquie Tokaryk,   the Websters, and the others who have helped bring that community back into vibrant life.  It’s now home to one of the finest small enlightenments in the world today.  Good cheeseburgers at Charlie’s Lunch, good meals at Jack’s, several b&b’s;  and a new T-Rex Discovery Centre that would do justice to the Smithsonian, and that interdisciplinary marriage of art and science – STEAM – that characterize Enlightenments or Renaissances.

It was an inspiring place to work on the biography.  And, as things turned out, it was the place — in the living room of the Stegner House — where I found the key to the George R. Stewart biography.

The other highlight was being honored with a presentation of a Saskatchewan supporters of the arts pin, by Lieutenant Governor Lynda Haverstock.

Visit Eastend.   And give it some time.  Good campground, adequate motels, not far from a CAA approved motel in Shaunavon if you prefer a “larger” town.

With the Stegner House, the T-Rex Discovery Centre, a fine pottery, and other art locations, Eastend is a highly recommended place to visit.  Also recommended is Stegner’s book about Eastend, Wolf Willow, and his collection of essays described above, WHERE THE BLUEBIRD SINGS TO THE LEMONADE SPRINGS.  The collection of essays, which includes the essay about George R. Stewart,  begins with his memories of Eastend.

Philip Aaberg’s sheet music for “Earth Abides” is published

For nearly a decade, I was a traveling Educator for NASA.  Most school work, in those long-ago days on the NASA Education highway, was with 4-6 grades. Sometimes, though, we’d work with High school students.  That age group can be a challenge.  A former high school teacher myself,   I had a few appropriate activities to use.  One was to work them through The Drake Equation.  (See also this BBC Interactive Page.)  Another,  a head-down bedrest exercise that let the chosen briefly experience and document the fluid shift caused by microgravity.  The third was to read from George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides.

 

 

At Galena High School in Reno to work with Science Teacher Richard Brong’s students, I included the Earth Abides reading with other activities.  After the session ended, Richard asked, “Do you know Philip Aaberg’s music?”

 

 

“Aaberg’s written and recorded a composition called ‘Earth Abides.'”

 

It was the beginning of a quest:  To find a copy of the music; then, if possible, to find Philip Aaberg.

 

Fortunately, Missoula’s legendary Rockin Rudy’s had a copy of the Windham Hill CD, Harvest, with Aaberg’s composition.

 

 

Then, with some detective work  on the web, I found the phone number for Sweetgrass Music, Phil and Patty Aaberg’s music (etc) business.   Calling the number connected me with Patty Aaberg; Patty connected me with Phil.

 

Phil is an exceptional musician.  In high school he regularly traveled 600 miles by train from Chester, Montana, to Spokane, Washington, (and 600 miles back)  to study with a Julliard teacher who’d moved west to find students like Phil.  He received a full scholarship to Harvard.   When he found himself depressed by the Vietnam war, unable to create music, his brother sent him a copy of Stewart’s Earth Abides.  The book, and others by Stewart, encouraged and inspired him, and he could once again create.   The composition was his honoring of Stewart and Stewart’s great novel.

 

The friendship with Phil eventually led to his participation in a George R. Stewart Symposium at the annual CONTACT conference.  There, Phil spoke of Stewart’s profound influence; then played several compositions, including Earth Abides.

Now – thanks to sponsors Bob Lyon,  Junlin Pan, Ross and Charleen Bogert, Alan Kaplan, Joyce Stewart, and Doug Raybeck – the sheet music for Aaberg’s Earth Abides  has been published.  It’s for sale at a reasonable price, here:

If you play the piano or know someone who does, this is worth buying.

 

Even if you don’t play, buy it – the cover is worth framing.

 

If Stewart’s iconic novel becomes a successful mini-series, this will be a collector’s item.

 

Highly recommended.

 

Here’s more about Philip Aaberg, from an excellent website about simplification:

 

 

A Day of Celebration – The National Park Service Turns 100

George R. Stewart was not really a national parks person; he was more active in national forests, where he did much of his research.  But we met at a small state park, Thornton State Beach, where I was a Ranger.  And there, thanks to fellow Ranger Steve Gazzano, we named our nature trail for Stewart, not realizing then how much it would mean to him.  Stewart was enthralled with place-naming.  To have someplace beautiful named for him was, in his eyes, an exceptional honor.

GRS Trail Guide

State park systems grew from the National Park system.  So this tale of the founding of the National Park Service is part of the George R. Stewart story:

100 years ago today, the bill establishing the National Park Service was signed.

The National Parks were established before the Service, but there was no coordinated management and things were poorly run.  Wealthy businessman (he gave us Twenty Mule Team Borax) and conservationist Stephen T. Mather wanted a Service that would make sure all parks had good management and staffing.

Mather had been escorting a group of influential writers and businessmen, which included the famous photographer of Native Americans Edward S. Curtis, on a strenuous trip along the just-finished John Muir Trail.  His assistant, Horace Albright, had stayed in Washington to make sure the bill was passed and signed.  As soon as it was passed, Albright took the bill to the White House, in the evening, to get it signed.  President Wilson was not well, but he was able to sign the bill and did so at 9 pm.   Albright immediately sent a telegram to Mather, who had finished his Mountain Party and was staying with the group at the Palace Hotel in Visalia:  “Park Service bill signed nine o’clock last night. Have pen President used in signing for you….”

Here’s the whole story, from Albright:

The opening lines of the Organic Act of the National Park Service still ring as some of the most beautiful legislative language ever written:

“The fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations… is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The world changed that day, and we’ve all benefited.  There are now national parks and national park services in many countries, inspired by this action.

Like many lucky folks, I did a stint as a National Park Service Ranger.  I worked on Alcatraz, at Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site in Montana, and – on a detail – in the Superintendent’s office at Yellowstone National Park during the Fires of 1988.  Since the Superintendent’s office at Yellowstone is a summit of Rangering, it was all downhill from there, and I left the Service in 1992.   Yet I’d accomplished a few things in those 6 years:

  • Helped upgrade the interpretive program from a movie version of Alcatraz history into one which emphasized the roots of the penitentiary idea in the work of Founding Father Benjamin Rush. (And had the rare pleasure of meeting his great-great-great-etc grandson, Benjamin Rush, on one Cellhouse tour.)
  • Thanks to Ranger Ted Stout and District Ranger Armando Quintero, developed and presented a series of workshops about the history of the National Park Service and UC Berkeley. The Service was born and initially housed at UCB, where Mather and Albright had been students. (Many people don’t realize that the Ranger Stetson is actually the “Senior Sombrero” for Albright’s class of 1912.) (There’s some debate about the year of the Stetson; but the one on display at Berkeley a few years ago had “1912” embossed on the hatband.)  Quite by coincidence – or was it a coincidence? – the Mather family showed up on Alcatraz just in time for Stephen T. Mather’s great-grandson, Stephen Mather McPherson II, to be involved in the workshops.)
  • In a story whose details must remain secret, I unknowingly helped derail the plans of the Superintendent of the GGNRA to “destroy” – his term – the National Park Service.
  • And in Yellowstone, I was able to build on pre-existing work and bring NASA into the fire effort, thus establishing the concept of NASA-NPS partnerships which continue to this day – most recently, in Craters of the Moon, with the leadership of NASA’s Dr. Chris McKay and Craters of the Moon’s visionary and excellent Chief of Interpretation, Ted Stout.

The Yellowstone effort, informal as it was, is especially rewarding.  It was a fulfillment of an idea that came from George R. Stewart’s work, which gave the literate public the first example of the Whole Earth vision, first presented in Ordeal By Hunger:  That humans can now understand Earth from the two perspectives of space and ground.  Chief of Interpretation at Craters of the Moon National Monument, Ranger Ted Stout, and NASA’s Dr. Chris McKay,  have done much to bring that idea into fulfillment.

Now, NASA, under the direction of ISS Expedition 48 Jeff Williams,  has illustrated Stewart’s pioneering vision, in honor of the Centennial of the National Park Service. Click on the mission patch to see his video.

ISS_Expedition_48_Patch

Credit for such accomplishments is not always given.  But the important thing is that  work was done,  for the good of the Agency and the public.  It’s what public service is all about.

There were rewards, though, in addition to the doing of it.

mather cover

Book dedication Mathers

  • Connections with Dr. Chris McKay and NASA-Ames Chief Education Officer Garth Hull led to a wonderful career with NASA Education.
  • An invitation to the Dedication of the Ranger Museum in Yellowstone.
  • The  gift of a biography of Stephen T. Mather, autographed by the Mather generations.
  • And an unexpected experience in England that reinforced how important the National Park Service is to the world:

Attending a conference on heritage preservation at the University of Warwick, I went down late one morning to get breakfast in the university dining hall.  The couple seated across the table were distinguished in appearance and demeanor.  He was all in black except for a gold chain of office around his neck.

He said nothing.  She nodded.  Then asked, “Where are you from?”

“I’m an American, here to attend the conference.”

“What kind of work do you do?”

“I’m a National Park Service Ranger.”

At that, he put his fork down, looked at me and said, “I say.  This is an honor, to meet you.

“Do you get to wear one of those hats?”

“Yes, I do.”

“I would give anything for one of those hats,” he said.

He paused, then said, “You know, I think that if America has an aristocracy, it is the National Park Service Ranger.  You represent the best your nation has to offer.”

And he went back to his breakfast.

All the time, his wife was listening with a smile on her face.  Now, she asked, “Do you know who he is?”

“No, ma’m.”

“He’s the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

I have one regret about our meeting – I never sent him a hat.  But his words showed just how important the National Park Service and its Rangers are, and how important it is to keep that integrity alive – not easy to do in a day of skimpy budgets (except for war) and politically-inspired personnel practices.

The battle continues – the NPS has been weakened by poor funding and poor, political hiring and promotion practices in too many cases.  We need another Mather, and a re-creation of the National Park Service.

Yet, this is a day for celebration; and whatever the issues or the challenges, we have this wonderful Agency with us, pointing us down a good path, into a better future.

So let’s give three Huzzahs for the National Park Service, and its dedicated Rangers.  People like Ted, John, Phil B., Bob V., and all the others who work for sunsets so we can hike the trails in Mather’s and Muir’s footsteps.

Let us all thank the Mather family – Steve MM and Steve MM II – who carry on the work of their ancestor.  Huzzah to the Mathers!

And let’s add one more Huzzah – for the Rangering in the parks that brought me to  George R. Stewart.

 

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