Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thank You, Ranger Ted

It's funny what things from your childhood stay with you. You never know what experience will have a lifelong impact or what may shape your future. You may not know it at the moment it occurs, but some encounters can be profound. It was like this with Ranger Ted.

I grew up in Salt Lake City, and at Wasatch Elementary School, where I attended, we would occasionally have special visitors and performances for the whole school. We were very fortunate to have several visits from the world-class Utah Symphony during my K-6 years. We had ballet and modern dancers and puppet shows. One year, a charismatic U.S. Congressman from our district, Wayne Owens, came and talked to us about how he walked across the entire state during a recent campaign. But for me (and no offense meant to my mother-in-law, Carol, who played cello in the Symphony), the best visits were from Ranger Ted. I remember them as happening every year, but it could have been less frequent. After all, he was just one man, and there were many elementary schools to visit. But I get ahead of myself.

Ranger Ted was a Park Ranger from Yellowstone National Park, and he would visit our school to tell us about the wonders of Yellowstone.  He had a nice face and a short, silver, hair. But there was a little edge to him. When he showed up in his full park service uniform and Smokey The Bear hat, he had a commanding presence, not unlike a military drill sergeant. We did not misbehave around Ranger Ted. But it didn't hurt that he was so fun to listen to.

He would show up with a slide carousel and he would talk to us about the wonders of the park while flipping through the slides. We learned about the geysers, the sulphur springs, the mud pots, the Yellowstone Lodge and the animals. We laughed when a slide came through that was upside down and we all wished that we could be present when the Steamboat Geyser went off because it wasn't "Old Faithful" and it might be as long as 50 years between eruptions! He knew how to grab the interest of a kid--talk about the scary, exciting and gross things. Every visit from Ranger Ted had to include a stern warning about being careful around the boiling mudpots and hot pools, and what happened to the children who didn't listen and ran and tripped and...disaster. Or the child who reached into a hot spring and when she pulled her arm out... Gasp!

And then there were the bears. He told stories of the dumb tourists who got out of their cars to take pictures of the grizzly bears walking in the roads. The really stupid ones waved food to attract the bears. And...bye bye tourists! We learned about the bison that could get angry and charge a car, spearing it with their sharp horns, and of moose that could stomp you to death. And he would wrap up every visit by bringing out a baggy and he would explain to us that the stuff inside was called "scat". Bear poo. He would not allow us to dissolve into hysterics over having a ranger showing us bear poo. We had to be scientific and mature about it. And then we examined the scat to see what bears eat. Then he would tell us what happens to a bear when it learns that people have food--about how it may become too familiar with people and maybe even hurt someone, and then the bear would have to be killed. We learned that our actions had consequences, not just to ourselves, but to the natural world.

It all seemed so breathtakingly dangerous and beautiful. In my imagination, a trip to Yellowstone meant watchful walking on precarious pathways and flirting with disaster at every turn. But I really wanted to go to go there to see this wondrous place for myself. He was good at his job, old Ranger Ted.

Salt Lake is close enough to Yellowstone that there was a fairly good chance that the kids would have been there with their families. Many of my classmates had. I didn't get there until middle school. But after listening to Ranger Ted, I was prepared. Years later, when I brought my own kids to Yellowstone, I was sure to tell them not to fall into the boiling mud pots, and not to plunge their arms into the steaming water. We saw a grizzly bear and did not get out the car to feed it, and tsked knowingly at the foolish people around us getting out of their cars in order to get a good photo of a bison.

One time when I was about 20 years old, I was in the Utah State Capitol building and saw Ranger Ted walking by in his ranger uniform and hat. It had been years since I'd seen one of his talks, or since I'd even thought about him. But when I saw him I was so star struck that I couldn't bring myself to even go over and say hello. I often wish I had. And I wish I could talk to him now and tell him what I do now and how often I think about his visits to my school when I was a kid. I wish he could see me talking to a group of school children about alligator nests or butterfly metamorphosis, leading a wildflower walk, or catching a lizard, and he could see how much impact he had on my life. I'd tell him that for years I grappled with what I wanted to be, and that finally, I figured it out. I wanted to be Ranger Ted.

Volunteer Ranger Katherine
This week I was telling my, now adult, daughter about my memories of Ranger Ted, and I realized that I could Google him and find out more about him. I learned that his name was Ted Parkinson and that he was a professor of conservation and natural history at BYU and a seasonal park naturalist and ranger at Yellowstone, where he led nature walks and taught conservation workshops at the Yellowstone Institute. He served in China-Burma-India in WWII, which may have accounted for his commanding presence. During the school year, he visited schools, sometimes doing 10 presentations a day, for 36 years. He believed that teaching children about environmental awareness was very important. After 40 plus years, my memories about the specifics of his presentations to my school are a little foggy. He probably told us a lot more than the sensational parts I remember best. But what I know I do remember is his fundamental message, that nature is worth caring about. And this has stayed with my all these years. This was his mission. In his words, "As we learn things they become a part of our lives. That is why when you leave I will always be in your mind." I learned that he died in 2004 at age 87, a cultural institution in Yellowstone and in the Utah public schools. And he will always be in my mind.


  1. This is so sweet. It's wonderful to think we adults can influence children this way. I can definitely see some of him in you. :)

    1. Thanks, Kelli. The really interesting thing to me is realizing that this little kernel of interest had been there in the back of my mind for so long. It is tantalizing to wonder how things might have been if I had recognized it earlier, but then my life may have turned out very differently, and I like it just the way it is. Now I can just hope that I have some lasting effect on the children I meet.

  2. Ted was my uncle. So nice to see that you knew him!

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to contact me! I am honored. Believe me, I wish I had actually known your uncle, but I was so happy to have met him. He had a huge influence on my life. You made my day. Thanks again.