This story is part one of a series about unique jobs in Washington. Some jobs are necessary for the city to function or require a special set of skills,but all are cogs in the wheel that makes Washington tick.
WASHINGTON – Ted White sat beneath the Gettysburg Address,rifling through paperwork. His clients for the moment,7-year-old Sean Nairn and his 10-year-old sister,Kathryn,of Chicago,sat beside him,anxiously awaiting his approval of their Junior Ranger activity books.
“Do you have a favorite?” White,44,a National Park Service ranger,asked them.
Sean Nairn shook his head.
“That’s what I always say when people ask me,” White told them. He said he doesn’t like to play favorites.
After reviewing the filled pages,White congratulated the siblings and promised them a badge after they completed one more task: the Junior Ranger pledge.
“Why don’t you guys stand up,” White said. “And all you need to do is raise your right hand and repeat after me. Ready?”
White’s education degree from the University at Buffalo prepared him well for working with junior rangers. It also cultivated an interest in telling and preserving stories,another aspect of being a park ranger.
“The older sites like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial have so much history that they’re not just about what they memorialize,they’re about the history of the memorial itself,” White said. At the Lincoln Memorial,he explains its construction and Civil War ties,but he also talks about opera singer Marian Anderson’s concert in 1939 and Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The National Mall and Memorial Parks segment of the National Park Service oversees more than 1,000 acres of parkland in the Washington area,including 80 historic structures and more than 150 squares,circles,triangles and parks throughout the city. The National Mall’s familiar monuments are only a piece of what the group cares for,Supervisory Park Ranger Jeff Jones said.
With more than 700,000 visitors in June to the Lincoln Memorial,the most popular site,he said rangers have a very important job.
White is what Jones calls a “frontline” ranger,one who works at the sites. White and other rangers lead regularly scheduled programs,answer questions about the sites and conduct special group tours.
“They are the face of the park service,” Jones said. “They’re the people that people think of when they think of the National Park Service,and so they’re always vital because they’re making those one-on-one connections and conversations with the visitors.”
In addition to more than 60 permanent employees,the park also employs about 30 seasonal workers during the busy summer months. During each morning’s roll call,Jones gives 15 employees daily assignments and tells them about upcoming events or developments in the park.
Following the morning meeting,White walked through the Elm Walk by the reflecting pool. He arrived at the “iconic” Lincoln Memorial just before 9 a.m.
“It isn’t a bad commute,is it?” White asked. He started volunteering for the National Park Service in 2005 in Saguaro National Park in Tucson,Ariz. He worked at five other parks in various roles before coming to D.C. to become a “career ranger” in 2012.
“The job really is a rewarding job,” White said. “It’s a day-to-day reward just talking to people.”
After replenishing a stack of brochures,an activity he repeated throughout the day,White counted the morning’s visitors. Rangers use counter apps to track the number of people in each of the Mall’s memorials for 15-minute segments throughout the day. Statisticians then calculate the number of visitors to the park,approximately 24 million per year. In the “morning lull,” White counted 320 people.
“That is nothing,that’s very low,” he said. Sometimes,his count reaches more than 1,000.
White wrote the number down in a log book and walked back to the entrance of the memorial to stand near a sign advertising hourly ranger talks. Between talks and gathering statistics,White answers questions,gives directions or takes photos for visitors. Some giggling visitors pose with him for pictures.
“This uniform,it’s kind of iconic for some people,” White said. “It’s almost a caricature,like ‘Hey,it’s Ranger Smith or Yogi,’ and people make Smokey the Bear jokes,and I’m actually that. So I’m kind of this character that people know before they even meet me.”
People come to the memorial with different knowledge and experience,so White’s 15-to-20-minute “digestible” talks help them come to their own conclusions about the memorials. He asks visitors about themselves and points out related information. People from Illinois discover they are from the “Land of Lincoln.” Georgians learn that the statue is made from Georgia marble. People shorter than 5 feet 8 inches find out they could comfortably walk underneath the statue’s knee and that they would get in trouble if they did.
“I can’t force you to have a connection to this place,but I can try to come up with ways that may give you an opportunity to make your own connection,” White said.
He said one of the most challenging parts of giving these talks is keeping them fresh,relevant and inspirational. It’s not just about rattling off facts or giving a lecture.
White walked the tour group to President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address carved into the memorial’s north wall. He explained that the memorial was built between 1914 and 1922,then handed them a challenge.
“There is a typo in the speech,” he said. “That’s one of the secrets of Washington.”
The group quieted and frantically scanned the paragraphs for a mistake. Finally,someone pointed to the wall,where the lower leg of the letter “E” has been filled in to turn it into the “F” in the word “future.” Smiles spread across each face as the visitors found the mistake themselves.
Through trial and error,White has learned what people find interesting about the memorial,and tries to cater the talks to the interests of the groups he leads. When people feel a connection to a place,they want to preserve it.
“If the next generation doesn’t care about the parks,the parks won’t be here for the next generation,” White said. “It’s as simple as that,it really is.”
Reach Reporter Kate Winkle at [email protected] or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.