In turn, these employees draw their passion from the parks. Missouri's state parks feature unique landscapes, awesome scenery and fascinating historic sites, but the best resource the state park system has is its dedicated employees. Many have spent their entire careers working for Missouri State Parks – careers spanning 30 to 40+ years. The state park system currently has 36 employees with 30+ years of service on the payroll. So, what drew these employees in and what keeps them coming to work each day – even for many years after they could retire?
Choosing a Career
Roxie Campbell, park naturalist at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, said when she pursued a job with Missouri State Parks, “I wasn’t out to make a lot of money; rather, I was an idealist wanting to protect natural resources and help people enjoy them.” She said what has kept her coming back to work for the past 33 years is “taking care of the natural resources.” Also, it’s very rewarding when people attending programs express their joy and ‘ah-ha’ moments or kids say things like, “This is the best day of my life!”
Jack Winburn, who recently celebrated his 40th year with Missouri State Parks, chose his career path because of a love for the outdoors, which he credits to his dad. Many Missouri State Parks employees pursued their careers for a similar reason, then stayed around because of the mission: to preserve and interpret the state’s most outstanding natural landscapes and cultural landmarks and to provide outstanding recreational opportunities.
Jane Lale, a retiree, is one of those people. “Working in the exquisite natural and historic surroundings of our parks and historic sites is special,” said Lale. “Doing what we do is a wonderful, fulfilling career.” The variety of work is one reason many love their job. According to Deb Schultehenrich, a retiree who spent more than 32 years in various positions, “No two days were the same, which was appealing to me. It could include mowing grass to removing skunks from the campground, to answering the same question 100 times during the summer season, to laying out hundreds of miles of trail, to planning new state parks and learning to deal with new park directors. It was all exciting. And, you certainly have the best office anyone could ever want!”
Carl Bonnell, park superintendent at Table Rock State Park with 39 years and counting, agrees. “You never know what each day has in store or what twists and turns each day will take,” said Bonnell.
Mike Dickey, site administrator at Arrow Rock State Historic Site with 35 years of service and counting said, “When I feel pressure and need to blow off steam, I can take a walk in my ‘outside office’ and decompress, but I am still working because I can see what needs attention at the facility.
Many things have changed over the years, the most important being the passage of and the benefits received from the Parks, Soils and Water Sales Tax, which is the primary funding source for the state park system. Many state parks employees, current and past, spent hours of their personal time collecting signatures and campaigning for the sales tax.
On another note, Bonnell mentioned the change in “all the stuff campers feel like they have to bring with them on a camping trip -- from LED rope lights strung out throughout the campsites, hammocks, hover boards and drones, to the occasional swimming pool or bounce house.”
And now there is a new generation who may be considering a career in state parks. Current and retired employees say they would encourage a new generation to pursue such a career. George Kastler, a retiree who served 45 years as a park naturalist, said, “I have always encouraged young folks to consider a career with Missouri state parks and historic sites and I still do.”
The enthusiasm and passion for the state park system has followed employees into retirement. Many retirees belong to or are heavily involved with the Missouri Parks Association (MPA), an organization that supports Missouri State Parks. This involvement is beneficial as a lot of knowledge about the state park system walks out the door with employees when they retire. Some of the long-term employees who are still working already have plans to be involved with Missouri State Parks after retirement by either volunteering, joining MPA or just getting out and enjoying state parks and historic sites as a visitor. Dickey says after he retires, he will still make himself available for questions related to the historic sites he oversees “because I know stuff that is not necessarily written down or easy to find in archives.” Over the years, many employees have found their colleagues to be like an extended family. Because neither their passion for the state park system nor their friendships with colleagues were left on the doorstep when they walked out the door. Both are lifetime loyalties.