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Farewell to an Outstanding NPS Volunteer

  • Written by Mike Vouri

It is with a heavy heart that I recognize the passing this week in Wickenburg, Arizona of Gordon Smith, 90, a retired scientist with the U.S. Public Health Service and from 1997 to 2011 a seasonal volunteer park host at San Juan Island National Historical Park.

Gordon was an expert on the anopheles mosquito and worked at bringing this universal pest and its attendant diseases under control in the United States and several countries around the globe. However, it was as a park host that I knew Gordon best. 

In my 21 years here at the helm of the park’s visitor services I worked with two-score outstanding Volunteer in the Park (VIP) park hosts who hailed from every corner of the nation and walk of life. But none were more versatile or critical to the program as Gordon who, with his wife of 70 years, Elly Smith, entered the old double-wide trailer visitor center for the first time in mid-September 1996. They hailed from Loveland, Colo., and he said he expected to retire from the USPHS in the coming months. They had an RV and were interested in volunteering. Could they look around? My heart skipped a beat.

Gordon and Elly Smith from Loveland, Colorado, then Wickenburg, Arizona, were stalwart National Park volunteer park hosts every summer from 1997 to 2011.

My seasonal staff (four interpretive rangers and three volunteers) had gone by then and I had been told that the park budget (then $450,000) could not sustain paid staff for the foreseeable future. I would have to make do with volunteers. To enhance the process two new, fully serviced recreational vehicle (RV) pads had been carved out of the woods in the service area of English Camp to go along with the two existing pads at American Camp. All I had to do was find retirees with RVs to set up housekeeping in them, for which, in return, they would work 32 hours a week each in the visitor centers. However, it wasn’t so easy to recruit live-in volunteers in those days. Government recreation-based agencies had yet to set the web-based recruitment program that exists today. Instead, you posted notices in national campground franchises and counted on word-of-mouth.

Suddenly, without even trying, here were two people willing to work the counter and do anything else to help out while serving their country and enjoying life on one of the most beautiful islands on earth.

And so they did. 

The following May they pulled into their RV spot overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca and got to work. In addition to their warm personalities and engaging manner with the public, they had “skills.”

(Most VIPs do!) 

Gordon was not only a computer wizard, but also threw himself into living history programs such as soldiering, blacksmithing and woodworking, under the tutelage of islander Ron Garner, who worked for the park as both a volunteer and a ranger (the latter when we had the money) dating to the 1980s.  Gordon also spent office time developing Excel programs for tabulating visitor statistics, as well as for ordering and accounting for the book and gift operation, which Elly took over and expanded that very first year. He also built closet space for living history uniforms and shelving for the store operations.  Elly meanwhile, in addition to organizing my files (she had been an executive secretary), also served as “the laundress” on living history weekends.  


Gordon and Elly Smith, Mike Vouri

With the Smiths it was always quiet leadership, which set the tone for all who served with them. Whenever either of them approached me with a work issue, it was always “How can I help?” Or if I was missing the point (not infrequently), Elly would say, “Have you ever thought about…?” It was never “You ought to be doing this or that!” Or Gordon would take the Socratic route, leading me delicately to a solution, which I would pronounce followed by the response, “That’s what I was thinking!” Then he would say “Great minds” or something of that sort, only it was his mind, let there be no doubt.

I became so accustomed to this graceful style, that I was seriously thrown that first year without them, when they decided to retire for the second time to their new home in Wickenburg. But never fear, by then the Volunteer in the Park program was a well-oiled machine and more “Gordon and Ellys” have come down the pike too numerous to name here and continue to do so to this day, my park colleagues are pleased to report.

But my absolute favorite memory of Gordon Smith happened in 2004. That is when a cock pheasant suddenly appeared out of nowhere and began attacking hikers in the vicinity of the Granny’s Cove trail at American Camp. I didn’t believe it at first. None of us did.  Whoever heard of such a thing? Our law enforcement rangers chased it down the trails (holding their holsters fast) to no avail. I once tried to scare it away using a flag staff as a javelin. Nothing doing there, except the gales of laughter from visitors watching the tableau from the redoubt. Finally, when a woman burst in the door weeping hysterically, Gordon had had enough. He was a country boy and knew a thing or two about trapping birds. He acquired a net and cage from I can‘t recall where and set out on the prairie.

“I’ll take care of this,” he said, shaking his head. He was back in less than an hour. 

The bird, whom we’d dubbed “Phil,” was then packed off to one of our island volunteers, who thought it would be cool to have a genuine pheasant on his property out on Bailer Hill Road. His neighbors were less than enchanted, as a few days later we began to take complaints in the visitor center. Gordon went out and trapped it again. 

Where it ended up after that…I can’t say.

Rest in peace, Gordon. And bless your heart, Elly.


Last modified onSunday, 14 April 2024 01:38