Mr. Everhart, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the vision that you shared. In my reading, a theme of that vision that really stood out was relevancy, and maybe if you could talk about that, too.
W.E.– When the Park Service was formed back in 1916, there were maybe fifteen national parks. Within a couple of years, interestingly enough, the leaders of the Park Service decided one of the major objectives of the values of the park was education. The Park Service was established in 1916 and by 1920 in some of the major national parks they were trying out evening campfire programs. If you’ve ever gone to a national park they’re still doing that to tell people about things. Horace Albright, one of the founders in Yellowstone, was hiring naturalists. And they used to give walks, and in the evening put on slide shows. Well, they called it initially “education.” Then they thought that sounded more like lectures and so forth, but what they were doing was telling people stories about the animals, and the flowers, the trees, … “interpreting” wildlife management, biology, geology, and so forth. Essentially, they were translating a foreign language. So interpretation became one of the four important park activities, along with ranger activities, administration, and maintenance.
At the time I joined the Park Service, I was a historian at the University of Pennsylvania working on a Ph.D. I came back to Gettysburg, my hometown, over a weekend and ran into the park historian at Gettysburg, who offered me a job as a seasonal. So I worked one summer and then went back to school until the Park Service invited me to come back and be a permanent employee. Well, at that time I didn’t think that much of the Park Service and I thought it over. But I did figure here I was, nearing 30. I didn’t even own an automobile. I needed the money. So I joined, intending to finish up the Ph.D. soon.
In the first six years I was in the Park Service, I had six different jobs. What I realized is that the archeologists, the architects, and the historians and so forth were doing programs in the park which should be of a value and an excellence comparable to the park itself. When you’re doing things in Yellowstone, whether you’re doing the visitor center, or whether you’re doing the exhibits in the museum, they ought to be on the same level of [quality] and interest as the park itself. This is no place to do sloppy work.
Underneath the Gateway Arch, the Park Service planned to develop the largest museum it had ever undertaken. That’s what George called me to do. But as we made visits to Eero Saarinen’s office and saw the quality of the work being done, we got the idea of why not hire Saarinen to do the museum? We would do all of the historical research and have him design the museum.
So I went up a couple of times to his office— so we decided to ask Saarinen to do the museum. He agreed and invited Eames to help. I don’t know if you’re a fan of Charles Eames, the chair maker and designer and so forth— Well, to make a long story short, they made their pitch to the director. He told them, “No, we already have the best museum designers in the country.” But later on, the museum was designed by a former Saarinen architect.
G.H.– That’s the vision we brought back here. And that caused a lot of consternation, because it had been an organization that was run by personalities and by administrative manuals. We had fifty-six of those books, and I was convinced that that was the bottom line of why we couldn’t bring about any change. So I asked the regional directors about that, because we had to not only develop our program standards but also develop personal performance standards. These standards told the employee the conditions that exist when the job’s done satisfactorily. I was convinced from what I was hearing that always we went back to those cotton-picking manuals.
So I asked the regional directors to look at the manuals. They agreed that many of them were out of date but said we should keep them because it insured uniformity, and that’s when I came unhinged. I said, “You know, that happens to be the last thing I’m looking for. I want creativity, and innovation, and we’ll get it my way, if we abolish them.” And I abolished every one of them, thinking that never again would the Park Service be able to put them together, because they wouldn’t have that many people. Well, I wasn’t gone five years before they’d rewritten up to seventy volumes of them. Do you want to know the difference in the Park Service then and now? That’s it! Now you’re using a book to run the place, and back then we used people to run the place. I’m perfectly happy to have the record compared when we used people as opposed to when you use books.
I guess part of that emphasis on people was, again, with this idea of relevancy, looking for ways to reach out to a broader American public, a more diverse American public, and attract them to the parks.
We were already excluding from our management over half of our population, because no woman except one and no minority had any management job in the uniform service of the National Park Service. We had one woman who was a park superintendent. She [Wilhelmina S. Harris] was Mr. [Brooks] Adams’s secretary when the Adams [Memorial Foundation] gave the Adams Mansion to the National Park Service, and the requirement in the transition was that she be retained as the manager of the estate. I like to tell the story that the only woman superintendent we had was a gift. And that was it.
That was the situation when we opened the system up to women and minorities. We also opened up the Park Police. I appointed the first minority chief of any major police department in the United States. You know, here we are—and we’re saying that crime is rampant and that most of it is in the center [inner] cities. Most of it is generated by impoverished minority groups, and yet who is running the place? We have nobody who can speak their language. We’ve got nobody who is empathetic to them. And I learned from my experience in St. Louis where our guard force was African Americans. They were some of the most competent people I had there. I don’t think there was any one of them whom we had who didn’t have the respect of every professional we had on the staff there.
Can you put that in the context of President Johnson’s Great Society program? It seems like what you were trying to accomplish also fit into the broader goals of the administration.
I don’t think there’s any question but that the success of it depended upon the fact that it was consistent with what he and the secretary were trying to do. But I think that my explanation is: Why was I so committed to that? Because my experience from my youth said to me that women are the most competent people. Our family was saved by my mother, not by my father, because the Great Depression had made an invalid out of him. Our family was saved by her. So I knew what women could do.
Of course, I had the same experience with the blacks in the South. I knew that some of the most talented people in our town, our little rural country town, were the black people. An electrician who was a black man was one of the most competent people in town, but he had to come into your house by the back door. That was repulsive to me. Those were the motivating factors that said, you can’t exclude such people from management and have a successful team. But certainly it would never have succeeded without being consistent with what the secretary and the president wanted. And President Johnson’s experience was very much like mine. We both were raised in the South.
It sounds like you’re describing a very personal commitment to the goals of the Great Society. Is that accurate? Do you want to elaborate on that?
Absolutely. I don’t have any problem with that [the goals of the Great Society]. I believed [in] that and I believe it still to this day. Yes, I do. I believe that and I think that we are leaving behind a great segment of our population, which is a tragic failure of government. But that’s not because the government employees are incompetent. That’s because we’ve got an administration that doesn’t share those objectives.
A common Southern reason for believing black people are poor is because they’re lazy. Well, it’s just a falsehood, that’s all. They have had no opportunity. When they have opportunity they’re as successful as anybody else.
Certainly the Park Service has begun in the last ten years to incorporate sites into the National Park System that reflect a more diverse history. Is that a trend that you’ve also seen?
W.E.– Women’s Rights National Historical Park, speaking of the way in which that [trend is exemplified]—and another one, we can talk about how Wolf Trap came about.
G.H.– You know, Bill Everhart and I believed that our historical cultural parks were mostly birthplaces and battlefields. That was what we were commemorating. The military started it by saving battlefields, which ultimately in the 1930s were transferred to the Park Service and became the core of our historical parks in the system today. Birthplaces and battlefields, but nothing in between about what the creative people who came to this country accomplished. Every politician is anxious to jump out and proclaim [these sites as symbols of] the American way of life. When I became director, we hadn’t commemorated any of that. We started that [effort] when Bill and I were in the Park Service, and Wolf Trap is one of them. We had a whole list of cultural park proposals.
I even had a cultural park on the boards to interpret the cultural heritage of the Zuni Tribe…. It would have been a “counterpart proposal.” We would interpret the Zuni history and we would put in a Park Service career organization, and the chairman of the Zunis would appoint a counterpart. NPS and American Indian staff would work side by side. We agreed that when the Zuni had reached a level of competence that he could handle the job, we’d take our career employee out. [Eventually] that cultural park would be staffed entirely by Zuni Indians. Just think what a marvelous experience that would be today for somebody from New York being able to walk into a great cultural park in the Southwest and all they meet are Indians, Native Americans. Well, that went by the boards because one of the [Nixon administration’s] objectives in getting rid of me was to stop that legislative flow of new areas into the park system. The administration … operated under the slogan of “thinning of the blood.” I’m sure you’ve run into that.