A Conversation with Dave Ruth, Richmond’s Retiring Superintendent (part five)

(part five of five)

We conclude today my interview with Dave Ruth, who starts 2018 as the former superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield. Dave retired at the beginning of this week after a 44-year career with the National Park Service, including the last 26 in Richmond.

“One of the things that I never figured out was how to deal with my impatience,” Dave told me early in the interview. As we get ready to wrap up, I wanted to circle back to that statement. 

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: I want to tie back to a comment you said early on: one of your own challenges is your own impatience. But this all—everything we’ve been talking about—just strikes me as an incredible “long game” that you have been playing and working and been extremely patient with. That’s amazing to me.

DAVE RUTH: Well, I think it’s not so much patience as it is persistence. One of the things I’ve learned is that because of public response and the difficulty we had initially at expanding our boundaries, we could have taken the tack of “It’s just not worth it. At this moment in time, the sentiment is so negative, there’s too much potential damage, and it’s not worth it.” We wanted instant gratification even then, but the reality was that it’s a long game.

It became clearly apparent to me that we’re in it for the “500-year game” and couldn’t just look at it as what we were going to create in the next two or three years, but we had to look at what it could be in 100 or 500 years, and that’s how we have to manage it. With persistence, we look at what we absolutely need—we don’t know when the acquisition opportunities are going to occur or even if they will, but we have to indicate our interest to buy what we can as soon as we can and then figure out how to get the sites open.

Also I don’t worry about how we can afford to maintain the new areas we do acquire. Maybe I should, but our maintenance staff works hard and they work smart. When we acquire fields that are currently farmed, we keep hem in agriculture and put the leasing revenue back into maintenance and resource protection.

CM: I think the story you’ve shared about the park’s growth has been a remarkable achievement, and an incredible testimony to great leadership and vision. As we get ready to wrap up, as you get ready to retire, do you have any regrets?

DR: Any regrets about retirement? I’ll have to figure out what to wear each morning. [laughs, indicating his Park Service uniform].

I have a lot of regrets. I have grown to love this agency more than I ever imagined I would. A lot of my colleagues feel a great amount of frustration due to dwindling budgets and the absolute nightmare of trying to hire great people—and there are many great ones looking to work for this agency. But I love the mission of the National Park Service. I will miss the interaction with the public. I think most of the things we’ve talked about today in terms of land acquisition have been wonderful.

But putting in an electronic map program at Cold Harbor, installing it and watching visitors walk in and say, “My gosh, I really now understand what happened here!”—there’s nothing more satisfying than to realize we made a momentous change in a person’s understanding of the story or in some way provided a way for them to make a personal connection or even locate where their ancestor fought and might have been wounded or even killed. We can’t underestimate the power of genealogical connections in these places. I will miss all that tremendously.

But I will relish greater opportunities for more writing projects, and maybe that will help to offset what I’ll miss in the agency and the people I work with, either indirectly or directly.

I’ve had many mentors along the way in the National Park system that have helped me in my career, and from all over the country, not just the battlefield circuit. I’ve had many friends that I’ve developed in Glacier, or Yellowstone, or Yosemite, and I’m very fortunate to be able to call them with a dilemma, a question, or a challenge, and together we work through it. One of the strengths in the agency is the kind of folks that work for NPS, extremely dedicated folks who are not in this game to get rich. The beneficiaries of this work are the American public who are richer because of the experiences and opportunities our staff provides. That may sound egotistic, but I truly believe that.