by Lisa Moody Breslin | Photography by Kelly Heck
Chris Stein has been a park ranger for the past 41 years — 38 years with the National Park Service and three years with Utah State Parks. He is currently assigned to Gettysburg National Military Park and Eisenhower National Historic Site as their acting superintendent. Stein’s regular assignment is chief of heritage areas and partnerships for the Midwest region of the National Park Service. He graduated as valedictorian from the College of Natural Resources at Utah State University in 1979, with a B.S. in outdoor recreation, with emphasis areas in park management and interpretive planning.
While at Gettysburg, Chris Stein is living in a former one-room schoolhouse on the Gettysburg battlefield between Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge. Every morning, he delights in the flute-like calls of a wood thrush outside his window.
Briefly describe your love for parks — when it began and how it is sustained. As a park ranger for the past four decades, I’ve gotten up every morning eager to go to work. I have been blessed with my career, and I love it.
My earliest recollection of wanting to be a park ranger dates back to a fourth-grade field trip to Sagamore Hill National Historic Site (the home of Theodore Roosevelt) in Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York. Our yellow school bus chugged up “the hill,” and at the top, the school bus doors opened and a park ranger with one of those Smokey Bear hats on got on the bus and began to talk to us about Theodore Roosevelt’s political life and conservation achievements. Fifteen years later, I became one of those rangers at Sagamore Hill.
Where else has your Park Service work has taken you? I’ve worked in every region of the USA, including four years in the South Pacific on the remote island territory of American Samoa. I’ve also been on short-term assignments in China, Chile, Costa Rica, Germany, Nigeria, and Tanzania.
What are some of the pleasures you hope people who come to the park enjoy? The simple pleasures of spending time with each other; learning the history of our nation and where we, as a people, have come from; learning about the sacrifices that others have made before us so that we can remain a strong democracy; and simply spending time touring the park and being outdoors.
“The simple pleasures of spending time with each other; learning the history of our nation and where we, as a people, have come from; learning about the sacrifices that others have made before us so that we can remain a strong democracy; and simply spending time touring the park and being outdoors.”
– CHRIS STEIN
What are three of the most popular events at the park? Three popular events that take place at the park include: 1) the annual July battle anniversary commemorations that take place in the park, borough, and adjacent lands; 2) Remembrance Day in November, when President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Gettysburg Soldiers Cemetery, and 3) Free ranger programs where park rangers provide guided walks and special programs about the battle and its aftermath. These are offered everyday spring through fall. Check the website for specifics (www.nps.gov/gett).
Re-enactments do not actually take place at the park, though some people assume they do. Describe the relationship that the park has with re-enactments. For safety reasons, we do not allow re-enactments (i.e., people firing at each other) to take place in our parks. We realize that many people enjoy participating in and enjoy viewing re-enactments. This is wonderful, but we do not take this added liability on in our parks. Our job is to protect the taxpayers’ investment in parks, not increase liability. In addition, and even more important, is the fact that Gettysburg and other battlefield parks are established to be areas of peaceful commemoration, reflection, and reconciliation. While re-enactments can be very exciting to watch, for many people, these re-enactments can actually detract from the very reason why these parks were established in the first place.
What other gatherings best capture that “back-in-history” feeling? Encampments help re-create that “back-in-history” feeling. Gettysburg actually has a black powder specialist on staff. This park ranger’s job is to educate and accompany the living history volunteers we invite to come and do firing demonstrations of muskets and cannon on the battlefield. This park ranger oversees them, so these firings are done safely, according to National Park Service standards.
Mind you, when these firings occur, people are not firing at each other! And it’s gunpowder only — no bullets or cannonballs.
What about the park keeps you up at night? Anytime that someone or some organization wants to do something that will affect park resources in a negative way, that upsets me. I try not to let it ruin my sleep, but I admittedly do think about these things. Everyone has different perspectives on things. By ultimate direction from the secretary of the interior and the United States Congress, the perspective that my National Park Service staff and I take is one of natural and historic preservation. It is our job to preserve the historic scene at Gettysburg and Eisenhower national parks. Sometimes this very important “preservation role” of ours can cause conflict with our neighbors, but hopefully, we can collaboratively work things out so the scene from such a nationally and globally significant place like Gettysburg can be protected forever.
What makes you really happy? In addition to my children — I have five children, three sons, two adopted daughters from China, and my fourth grandson was born in May — I enjoy books, birds, butterflies, and a general love of all things nature and history. While I love Mexican, Indian, and Thai cuisine, I relish nothing better than a good old-fashioned medium-rare steak with a baked potato, not to mention turkey with stuffing covered in gravy. And … don’t forget the salad with bleu cheese dressing.
Your favorite way to relax? There’s nothing better than spending quality time with the kids or going out for a beer or glass of wine with friends. I also love to read “primarily” nonfiction, but I have also recently enjoyed reading historical fiction about various Civil War battles, especially Gettysburg.