To fully appreciate the career and contributions of George B. Hartzog, Jr., it is important to understand something of his early life. His character and beliefs were shaped to a great extent by his mother, his Southern upbringing, the Great Depression, and the New Deal programs of the 1930s. George Hartzog, Jr., was born in 1920 in a rural community in South Carolina. His father, George, Sr., farmed roughly 150 acres in the Edisto River section of Colleton County, South Carolina, off State Highway 61, five miles from the village of Smoaks. George, his parents, and two younger sisters lived in a modest frame house, near a larger family home occupied by his grandparents. He began his education in a nearby one-room schoolhouse. The following year he began attending a school in Smoaks. George helped his father grow cantaloupes, cucumbers, watermelon, corn, green vegetables, and cotton.
The economic bust of the Great Depression forced the family to sell their farm to pay the mortgage and move into the home of George’s grandfather. When fire later consumed that household, Hartzog writes in his autobiography, the family lost everything “but faith in God and my mother’s determination.” The situation grew worse for the Hartzog family when George’s father developed chronic asthma that prevented him from working; his mother struggled with rheumatoid arthritis. The family survived these years, Hartzog later recalled, through the charity of neighbors and the welfare programs of the New Deal. The personal experience of the Great Depression and New Deal programs left a deep imprint on the young Hartzog and no doubt shaped his devotion to the values of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program decades later. Growing up in a rural South Carolina community and watching the daily struggles of women and African Americans also planted the seeds of his deep personal commitment to advancing opportunities for women and minorities in the national parks and in the National Park Service.
In 1933, the Hartzog family moved to Walterboro, the Colleton County seat, so George’s mother could find work. A talented seamstress, she quickly found work as the county supervisor of WPA sewing rooms, while George Hartzog, who had absorbed her strong work ethic, took on a series of part-time jobs to supplement the family income: mowing lawns, pumping gas, store clerk, busboy, dishwasher, and cook. In 1936, at age sixteen, Hartzog left school in order to work full-time, pumping gas during the day and operating as a hotel clerk at night.
Hearing that George had dropped out of school, Col. James F. Risher, headmaster of the Carlisle Military School, a high school in Bamberg, South Carolina, visited the Hartzog family at Walterboro. The colonel, a childhood friend of George’s mother, told the family that “to amount to anything, George must finish high school.” There were only six weeks left of the school year, but the colonel took George back with him, agreeing that if George passed the final exam, he could graduate. George did. In the summer of 1937, he was licensed by the Methodist Church as a local preacher, the youngest licensed preacher in the state at the time. An anonymous group of local businessmen provided funds to send the seventeen-year-old preacher to Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to study Methodist theology, but when the funds ran out at the end of the first semester, George returned to Walterboro, where he worked for a year and a half as a stenographer and interviewer for the Colleton County Department of Public Welfare.
In 1939 Hartzog went to work as a law clerk and legal secretary for Joe [Joseph M.] Moorer, a partner in the Walterboro law firm of Padgett and Moorer. There he read and studied law at night under Moorer’s supervision following the prescribed three-year curriculum. To augment his modest income, Hartzog joined a local National Guard unit. In September 1940 his unit was called into federal service and sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. After his return, Hartzog continued his studies back in Walterboro, passed the South Carolina bar exam, and was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of South Carolina on December 17, 1942, remarkably without completing college or ever attending a law school. He then went into private law practice. In March 1943 he was inducted into the army, where he first served in the judge advocate’s office of the 75th Infantry Division at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and later was assigned to the military police.
After his discharge from active duty in 1946, he began work as an adjudicator for the General Land Office (now the Bureau of Land Management). Six months later, he left the federal government to join a private law firm. Soon after, he accepted a position as an attorney for the National Park Service in its Chicago headquarters. When the Park Service headquarters moved back to Washington, D.C., in 1947, Hartzog and his new bride, Helen, moved there as well. He was subsequently transferred to Lake Texoma National Recreation Area in Denison, Texas, to administer the program for leasing land and in 1948 was reassigned to the chief counsel’s office back in Washington, D.C. The self-taught lawyer was admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court of the United States in October 1949.
Hartzog was promoted to assistant chief of concessions management in 1951. Over the next few years he continued his education at American University, where he received a bachelor of science degree in business administration. In 1955 he became assistant superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park and two years later was transferred to Great Smoky Mountains National Park as assistant superintendent. He became superintendent of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1959. There he successfully initiated the construction of the historic Gateway Arch. With construction underway, Hartzog left the Service in July 1962 to become the executive director and secretary of Downtown St. Louis, Inc., a position he would not hold for long.
In 1962 Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall approached Hartzog about becoming the next director of the National Park Service. Udall had been favorably impressed when the two men met in 1961 during Udall’s visit to the Ozarks in southeast Missouri to review a proposal for a national monument. During a two-day float trip on the Current River, Udall quickly came to admire Hartzog’s enthusiasm, drive, and leadership qualities. They agreed that Hartzog would serve as an associate director under the current director, Conrad L. Wirth, and then step into the director’s position when Wirth retired. Hartzog became associate director in February 1963 and succeeded Wirth in January 1964, early in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. Udall had found what he was looking for in a National Park Service director—a forceful leader who would help implement President Johnson’s Great Society program. Hartzog approached his directorship with vision, passion, and energy, often working fourteen hour days and devoting many weekends to meeting with park superintendents. His was a very personal and dynamic style of leadership. He wielded power forcefully and effectively. As we see in this interview, Hartzog took personal control of the budget, personnel issues, and legislation, delegating everything else to his staff. Early on he decided to appoint each park superintendent personally.
George Hartzog was one of the most influential and effective directors that the National Park Service has ever had. It can be argued that Hartzog ranked with the Park Service’s founders and first two directors, Stephen T. Mather and Horace M. Albright, in his political acumen and effectiveness. He fully understood and appreciated the important role of Congress in shaping public-land policy and had a deep respect for the legislative process. He was a skilled lobbyist and even today recalls with some satisfaction that he wore out three pairs of shoes a year making office visits on Capitol Hill. He was extremely successful shepherding new legislation through Congress. No doubt the strong support from Secretary Udall and their shared vision contributed greatly to Hartzog’s effectiveness.
During Hartzog’s nine years as director, the National Park System underwent its greatest period of expansion since the 1930s. Roughly seventy units came into the system, nearly three-quarters as many as in the preceding thirty years. His tenure not only marked a period of great expansion and growth, but also it was in many ways a period of transition for the Service. Under Hartzog’s skilled leadership, Park Service managers and professionals expanded their operations and activities in new directions. The director greatly enlarged the Service’s role in urban education, historic preservation, interpretation, and environmental education.