Monday, August 8, 2016

Happy Centennial National Parks

The blog is written with Ron wearing his 8th Director of the National Park Service hat, and me wearing one as a member of the NPS Advisory Board, 1988-1990.

On August 16, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the National Park Service. (NPS). "The Organic Act" states that the fundamental purpose of the NPS "is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

Yellowstone was established by congress on March 1, 1872, as the first National Park, not only in the United States, but in the world.

The NPS encompasses more than 84 million acres and generates over 32 billion dollars annually.  Parks are an economic engine for states, cities and communities, but the NPS budget is quite small by comparison at around 3 billion annually for park operations.

They've been called "America's Best Idea."  They are America's treasures, both God given and man made.  They are loved, sometimes abused, at times overcrowded and some facilities are falling apart.

When Ron was appointed Director in 1972 by President Nixon, there were 30 national parks.  After a careful review, he concluded that we should take good care of what we already have, and perhaps add a "prairie park" to round out the system.  Not so fast, said just about every congressman or senator who didn't have a national park in their backyard.  Today there are 59 of those precious gems that the taxpayers must take care of.

The maintenance backlog is 12 million dollars, and keeps growing, and getting more serious.  Back in the early 70s the few rangers responsible for law enforcement we're lovingly referred to as "pine pigs.  We wore the T-shirts and thought the whole notion was kind of funny.  Today it is far from a joking matter.  It was on Ron's watch, that the first park ranger was killed in the line of duty.  The culprits were poachers.  Today, law enforcement in National Parks is a very serious concern.

Back then, park visitation was 211 million annually.  last year, 2015, there were 320 million visitors loving their parks.  But, in spite of the large numbers of visitors, the agency worries about staying relevant to younger generations.  They are working hard to reach a wider diversity of people that more fully reflects our entire nation, which has changed dramatically in recent years.  You may have read about the NPS call to "Pick your Park" and the free pass for every fourth grader to visit a park.  If Americans don't know what parks are all about, they might not choose to visit or support parks.

If you have visited a National Park this centennial summer, you have experienced huge crowds, waiting lines everywhere, and traffic jams.   Park employees are jammed too.  In Grand Canyon alone, they have used one mile of toilet paper every day for every single stall.  Yikes.  How wonderful that we love our parks and want to help be a part of the birthday celebration, but just think about what this is doing to the system.

Seems that everything old is new again, so we'll say it again.
*Let's stop acquiring new federal lands until we can adequately take care of and repair what we already have.
*States have good park systems, too.  Maybe it is time to send some entities back to their parent state for care and feeding.
*Maybe it is also time to sell some lesser quality land and use the funds where they will do the most good.
*And maybe it is time to consider more corporate or friends group participation to help with funding. We have seen first hand how vital these types of partnerships can be.
*And we know it is well past time to increase the federal budget so the NPS can do what needs to be done.

What better way to say Happy 100th Birthday to our National Parks than sprucing them up and making them look as beautiful as possible.  So, pause and think about our precious parks, or better yet stop and cherish one in person.  Take family and friends along with you if possible.  Make a memory of a very special time in a very special place.  Our memories of our family spending time in national parks are very special to to us.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Remembering John Whitaker

John Whitaker, as I first met him, on the other end of the phone.  He was the Tour Director on the 1968 Nixon Presidential Campaign.

Cheers is gone.  We will miss him.  A great American, patriot, father, grandfather, and friend has died at 89.

John Whitaker, whom we all called CHEERS, back in the day, was the voice on the other end of the telephone when Ron first got involved in the campaign of 1968, when Richard Nixon was running for his second try for the presidency of the United States of America. John was involved in the 1960 campaign as well, but we didn't know him then.  Cheers always signed every thing he wrote, with the word, "cheers."  And it stuck.

Years before, he had read a book about Richard Nixon while sitting on a beach.  He was completely caught up in his personality and accomplishments.  He told his wife, Betty, "I have to go to work for this man.  He needs to be President of the United States." Betty was not thrilled with the idea, and she never was as devoted to the president as her husband was.

Election night in November of 1968, at the Waldorf-Astoria, was the first time I got to finally meet the people that Ron had been working closely with for many months.  I knew most of them by their telephone voice and was very excited to finally meet them in person. It was a very long night. The election was too close to call.  We didn't know who had been elected until the next morning.

 Soon after we arrived at the Waldorf, I found myself sitting next to Betty Whitaker, Cheer's wife.  I introduced myself and she said, "Ten G. D. years for this."

I didn't know how to respond.  Perhaps I didn't, because I don't remember saying anything. I was pretty intimidated.  But, now in hindsight it is easy to understand her reaction.  She was raising their five sons by herself and dealing with a husband who was never home.  Presidential campaigns are very hard on those who are left behind.  I'd already had a small  taste of it, but it was still too new and exciting and Ron was really good at keeping me in the loop.  And, I hadn't been dealing with it for a decade like Betty.

We spent a lot of time with John and Betty over the next several years.  We didn't live very far apart in the Maryland suburbs.  Us moms would often come face to face in the Giant grocery store on Seven Locks Road.  We'd gab in the aisles and get caught up.  Betty looked and dressed like an Easterner. She was always sharp and well informed.  Cheers was Eastern too, but in a more rumpled, relaxed sort of way.  Flash forward many years to the Nixon reunion group photos where John, in the front row, wearing white socks, couldn't be missed.

During the horrendously stressful days of Watergate, Cheers had a heart attack.  We were all scared to death.  But our prayers were answered.  He survived and outlived Betty by fifteen years.

Dr. Whitaker and Ron worked together at the Department of Interior, Ron was Director of the National Park Service and John was Under Secretary.  They had a great deal in common and were good pals.  Always a true Nixon loyalist, John helped find the money and the means for the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace to become a reality.  Ken Khachigian said of John's help with the RN Library, "His perseverance, devotion and sheer doggedness were critical to creating the momentum that resulted in the successful opening in 1990.  All of it with the good humor and laughter that was the sunshine he brought to our lives."  Well said, Ken.

Ron and I serve on the Clemson University Institute for Parks board, and Ron, as Chairman, asked John to serve on the board with us.  It was great to be able to spend time with him, both in Washington and on the Clemson campus.  It was clear he was not hearing as well anymore, and I would sit next to him and he would ask me what had been said, or proposed, or who was talking?  We both had fun doing that.  Frequently, John would whisper that "Ron runs one helluva good meeting." Ron's proud of that accomplishment and says he learned from the best. Well, I guess so! His teacher was Chief Justice Warren Burger when they both served on the Bicentennial of the Constitution. Our friend, Lynne Cheney was a Commission member as well.

We cherish the good times spent with the Whitaker's. Numerous Washington social events where we were always thrilled to discover they were there too!  A trip to Disneyland, weekends at Camp Hoover, and many a long evening sharing cocktails and talking politics. Politics permeated our worlds.  I called him Cheers, he called me Dearie. I will miss him.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Put A Fork In It . . .

. . . . it's done!

And #1SIL (aka Bourbon Barron Barry McNees) has done it.  Well, at least one end of the Distillery District, "Where History is Brewing" in Lexington, Kentucky is done.  It's hopping with people, cars, exciting venues and great vibes.

Recently, Lynne, Barry, Marja and I had an incredible dinner at Middle Fork Kitchen Bar, named one of the top 100 restaurants in the nation on OPEN TABLE.  It's so popular that reservations are hard to come by, but my connections are the best.  We really did get the only open parking spot anywhere around. Rock Star parking is way too cool.

Readers of a previous blog, know that Barry saw the potential in the Old James Pepper Distillery District, in the shadow of the University of Kentucky campus, where Bourbon was born.  His vision just keeps on getting better and is growing each day, and with each new tenant who wants to be a part of the excitement.  Other businesses at the Middle Fork end of the district are Crank and Boom Ice Cream Lounge, where we had desert, Ethereal Brewing, Break Room, Barrel House Distilling Company, and Kentucky Knows.
This was our appetizer course.  Cheeses, pickles, salts and a candle made of renderings that melted and was sopped up with hunks from  a crusty loaf of bread.  Made me think that was exactly what our fore-mothers did as they made good use of everything the hunters brought home for the family table.

Chef Mark Jensen named his restaurant after two other forks.  His popular mobile food truck was "fork in the road" and his wood and brick establishment embraces the great Elkhorn rivers middle fork that runs nearby.  In Lexington, they call it the town branch, because the town was founded on it way back in 1775.   That's where the drink, Bourbon and Branch, came from.

As the old Pepper area fills with more businesses, we get more and more excited.  An Italian eatery is going into space on the bottom floor of the "five story" where Barry still has his office.  Rumors about boutique hotels and music venues come and go, adding to the anticipation and joy of wondering what tomorrow will bring.

If you plan to be in the area, go on OPEN TABLE and book your spot for an adventurous meal at Middle Fork Kitchen Bar.  You won't be sorry.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Presidential Home, Library and Scarf

Recently Ron and I went back to a special place that we first visited in January of 1973: The LBJ Ranch in the Hill Country of Texas.

President Richard Nixon had named Ron to be the 8th Director of the National Park Service right after his re-election in 1972.  President Johnson had decided he wanted to give his Ranch to the American People . . . . but first he needed to size up the new director, and tell him how he wanted things done.

Ron and I flew from our nation's capitol to Austin and were driven to the Ranch by the Secret Service.  We were really nervous, and sat in the back seat holding hands.  We fully expected to be shown to a guest house and told when the President would like to meet with Ron.  Instead, the driver stopped at the front door and we were told to go inside as everyone was expecting us.  GULP.  As we entered the living room, several people were getting up from a dining room table close by.  Suddenly, this larger than life man, who I had seen on TV most of my adult life, was hugging me, "You must be Anne," he said, "What are you drinking darlin?"  GULP again, but before I could say a word he added that he had Michelob on tap and I managed to tell him that would be perfect.  And, of course it was.

We were to stay in the "Kennedy Bedroom", so called because President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy had stayed there.  It was a cheery, bright yellow room, at the top of the stairs, first door on the right.

For four days, we toured the Ranch and the surrounding area.  The President sat on a log at his boyhood home, and told us about his growing up, in this very place.

 He spent hours giving Ron advice on how to be Director of the National Park Service.  Mrs. Johnson often told him to go rest, but he'd only be gone for a few minutes and then show up to give us yet another gift.  Books, pens, a cowboy hat for Ron and a scarf with the "Wildflowers of Texas" on it for me.

When he found out that we were the parents of three little girls, he invited us to come back as soon as school was over. He told us, several times, "I want those girls to ride my horses, swim in my pool, and see Bird's wildflowers."

We watched the Super Bowl together, and then left to return to Washington.  President Johnson died less than a week later.  Ron and I were his last guests at the Ranch.

Mrs.Johnson honored the invitation the President had extended to our family, and we took our daughters to the LBJ Ranch when school was out.  Mrs. Johnson was a warm and gracious hostess.  The park service was just beginning to bring visitors through the ranch on buses, and each time a bus would go by the house, Mrs. Johnson would jump up, open the front door and wave at the people on the bus.  She'd shout that she was glad they were there, and hope they were enjoying the ranch.  What a thrill that must have been for those early visitors.

And all these years later, Ron and I are honored to represent the Richard Nixon Foundation on the Association of Presidential Libraries.  Larry Temple, Ron's counterpart at the LBJ, hosted the groups meeting this spring.  Thirteen Presidential Libraries are represented.  Soon President Obama's Library, now deciding between two locations in Chicago, will join the group.  The Foundations meet, and then the next day, they are joined by their governmental directors from the National Archives.

On the first morning, we were thrilled to join the tour of the LBJ Ranch.  I wore the wildflower scarf that President Johnson had given me 43 years earlier.  Nobody had seen it before, except Luci Baines Johnson, the Presidents younger daughter, who joined our group and told many wonderful stories about the ranch as their family home.

One very moving story was about the hustle and bustle that went on when they were preparing for President and Mrs. Kennedy's visit.  A pecan pie was in the oven, and the delicious smell added to the festive mood anticipating the visit.  When word came that the President had been killed in Dallas, everyone and everything stopped.  Silence.  Finally, the sobbing cook howled and said, "What are we going to do with the pie?"  Luci told us that everyone in America, at that time, was dealing with their own version of the same question.  What are we going to do with the pie?  And to this day, a ceramic facsimile of a pecan pie sits on the ranch house stove.  Waiting.

At a lovely dinner at the LBJ Library, Luci and I decided that the scarf should be given to Lady Bird's granddaughter and namesake, Claudia, who was about to have her 40th birthday.

                                                My "Texas Wildflower" scarf, the morning
                                            we left for our trip to Austin and the LBJ Ranch

It was an emotional visit, but also a real treat to re-trace our footprints of a special place so many years later.

Today, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park attracts visitors from all over the world.  The ranch house furnishings are the original ones that the Johnson family used before, during, and after the Johnson White House years.  It's interesting to note that there are telephones EVERYWHERE.  And the television sets are a bank of three; so the President could monitor ABC, CBS and NBC.  Mrs. Johnson would often sneak off to her own room, to watch her favorite program, "Gunsmoke."

The NPS Superintendent at the park is Russ Whitlock.  Larry Temple said he was right out of central casting, cause he looks just like a park service ranger and superintendent should look.  Larry was spot on.  Ron and I enjoyed meeting Russ and all the park service staff.  We have since sent them our pictures and letters, and are proud to add them to the other archival ranch documents.
Postscript: I received a lovely note from Luci with many thanks for the special time we shared.  I loved this quote, "It was a joy sitting next to you at dinner at the LBJ Library.  Hearing the story of how you met my parents and your subsequent visit, reminded me just how much the National Park Service family feels like family to generations of Johnson's."
     As she thanked me for the scarf, she said, "Claudia's 40th was a very special family event full of the irreplaceable gifts of precious memories, but no gift meant more than receiving the scarf her grandmother had given you.  Claudia is as sentimental as Daddy was.  She instantly decided to frame your scarf to hang in her bathroom so she will see daily this precious memory of her Nini, through the kindness of a remarkable fiend she has yet to meet."