My Mentor

My professional career as an interpreter began as a dream to work in the parks, and continued with my coursework in college. But none of that meant anything until I met Gary Hathaway. Technically, Gary was my boss while I worked as an interpreter at Lava Beds National Monument, but really his role was much more important in my life. It was Gary that gave me the seeds of inspiration which have sustained me in my career as an interpreter.

It may seem odd for me to write about a guy you've probably never heard of and of whom you'll never meet. But if you've ever been to a National Park and been inspired by a ranger walk or talk, then you'll understand why this story is important. It is because of guys like Gary that we celebrate the National Parks, it is because of guys like Gary that we hold Park Rangers in such high esteem, it is because of guys like Gary that we work to provide unimpaired protection for the precious resources within the Parks.

The official role of interpreters in the National Park Service is that of resource protection. It's the same role given to the law enforcement guys. But, instead of protecting with a side-arm and citation book, interpreters use a softer approach which is by no means less effective, but it is certainly harder to measure. I get very frustrated when I see the role of interpretation equated to that of entertainment. Anybody can entertain you, but a skilled interpreter can change the way you view the world. I know that sounds over the top, but I've seen and experienced it. Now of course, if you ask a ranger to point you to the bathrooms, your world view may not be changed by his answer. But if you attend a guided walk or evening program, maybe it will.

Gary was a master at this. I can recall a walk I attended with him through Captain Jack's Stronghold at Lava Beds with a group of perhaps 15 college kids. To the unaided eye, the Stronghold appears as nothing more than a loose collection of boulders. But in the hour long journey through these rocks, Gary was able to weave a story that had a bunch of 20 somethings at first laughing, then contemplating, and finally crying. The story was so powerful, and the message so important, I'll never forget it. If Gary's ultimate objective was resource protection, he succeeded. I'll never pick a piece of sage brush again without thinking of its historic role within Lava Beds National Monument.

How wide was Gary's influence? I have no idea. I am aware that, like me, he had a profound influence on the careers of many other interpreters. Since I began this blog, I've made contact with a number of folks who had worked with Gary in the parks. These are folks who now live all over the country, places like Florida, Tennessee, Oregon, and Washington. One of these guys is Ranger X, who now has his own blog. It turns out that Ranger X (Frank) and I used to be roommates at Lava Beds. I hadn't seen, emailed, or talked to Frank since the time I left the park 12 years ago, then his blog popped up earlier this year. I write this story today because Ranger X has published on his blog a letter written to him from Gary Hathaway. Said Gary in his letter:
My park service legacy can only be found in the hearts and minds of the tens of thousands of park visitors who were touched directly or indirectly by my programs, my publications, my personality, my philosophy, my service. A fair percentage of it, perhaps, lives on in the subsequent work of those seasonals I have trained who had the sensitivity to grasp the precious concept of the NPS ideal. I had to retire and go through some pretty serious withdrawals to understand and appreciate that.

Gary died a few years back. He was one of the good guys. He was the embodiment of the reasons we love our National Parks. And as my mentor, his legacy will live on.


Thanks for this. You've made my day.

I'm Steve...Gary's son. I'm glad you remember him this way. I do too. I tagged along on thousands of his Stronghold tours...So many that I have the entire story memorized exactly as he used to tell it. I was there when he lead the Modocs through it during the first Indian Gathering in 1990...It was on my 10th birthday. I was there for his last Stronghold tour...Years after he retired he gave it one last time, just the two of us, and just for me.

He retired from the NPS because he was utterly defeated by the bureaucrats. A (now former) superintendent at Lava Beds forced him into early retirement by rejecting every idea he had as the Chief Interpreter. He returned to Lava Beds only once, just for our last Stronghold tour. My mother still refuses to return.

This past summer, I applied at Lava Beds for a permanent position. I received a letter of rejection from the same superintendent. Apparently the Hathaway name is still not welcome there.

With all this said, I am not bitter. It's useless to fight against the NPS brass. I'll make a difference in the same way he did; through the visitors.

Thanks again for this post'I'm now your newest subscriber.


This is a touching and fitting tribute to an NPS legendary great. I still remember how you and I listened to him and eventually dubbed him "Guru Hathaway".

Funny to think that it's been a dozen years since we crammed into that tiny apartment. Also funny to think that we shared our summer of formal interpretation together.
Steve: It's a shame the way they treated your Dad considering the enormous impact he had on that place, not to mention the work of your Grandfather "the old soldier"! But, maybe that was the problem, maybe they felt insecure by all the amazing work done by your family.

Ranger X: Totally funny! I had forgotten all about the "Guru" moniker. I do remember we would frequently refer to Lava Beds as "Club Beds" though. Ahhhhh, good times. :)
To Steve
I am sorry about your Dad. I knew your Mom and Dad. We were living there when your family moved there about 1980 or so. I hope we were supportive when your Dad was diagnosed with cancer. I have good memories of the park but also sad ones. I think there was just too much politics and strife. The stress on my husband's health was too much. I used to miss the Park Service family and it was hard to let go. Good memories and sad ones too. I think the stress of the park affected me also and I am sorry I was caught up in the strife and I look back and don't like the person I was. It bothers me when I see some of people we met over the years who were problems keep climbing the ladder. Maybe they are better people now. I am a better person without it.
Tell your Mom hello and I think of her whenever I look at the cross stitch she made me.

I worked with Gary, back in 1976, at Scotty's Castle in Death Valley.
Sorry, to hear about his death.
P.S. If you think the N.P.S. is bad try working for B.L.M.