Robert "Bob" G. Stanton (1940 - ) received the Pugsley Medal in 2003. When he was appointed by President Clinton to be director of the National Park Service (NPS) it marked the pinnacle of an extraordinary and pioneering career. Stanton was born and raised in Mosier Valley on the edge of Fort Worth, Texas, which was one of the oldest African American communities in Texas, founded shortly after the Civil War by freed slaves. He was the youngest of four children. As a boy, he struggled with rheumatic fever, but by the time he was eight years old, Stanton was driving a tractor for his father who baled hay for local farmers. His mother was a short-order cook. As a youngster, Stanton spent many long hours in the hay and cotton fields.
Stanton was educated when the doctrine of "separate but equal" prevailed in Texas. The school he attended from first through sixth grade was dilapidated. All the restroom facilities were outside; there was only a spasmodic supply of coal for heating in the winter; and all books and desks were hand-me-downs from the white schools. When his parents joined with others to courageously protest these conditions (many of them were employed by the white establishment) the school board's initial response was to close the school and transport all the children to another black school in Fort Worth, so even first graders would experience a 30 mile round-trip. The parents group protested to the courts and the board was required to build a new school.
From his earliest years in elementary school, Stanton had unusual motivation to excel. A former teacher recalled, "He had that drive to go to the top. When the weather was cold, no one would show up but Bobby, so Bobby and I would have class all day. He liked to study everything. It was just in him." When it was time to go to high school, he was bused past several white high schools on a 30-mile round-trip commute to I.M. Terrell, the black high school in Fort Worth. In his youth, Greenway Park in Fort Worth was the only park in the community open to African Americans, and he could visit the Dallas State Fair site only on one day of the year -- Negro Achievement Day.
Stanton never forgot his childhood; it molded many of his subsequent passions. As a result of it, he knew he wanted to do something that would facilitate black youngsters participating in the kinds of educational experiences that had been denied to him. However, he was not embittered by those experiences. Rather, they were used to inform his understanding of the context in which he lived and work.
His diligence as a high school student was rewarded with a scholarship to Huston-Tillotson College, (now University) a church supported, private, traditionally black college in Austin, Texas, which recruited from I.M. Terrell High School. His career with the NPS began with an experiment in affirmative action that demonstrated the value of creating opportunities. In 1962, Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, sent representatives to the college to encourage young black students to look beyond traditional careers and consider the NPS as a career option. Stanton observed, "It was a new day. There were approximately 50 African American students from various historically black colleges and universities who worked that first summer in various parks."
The mental picture that the Interior representatives painted that day of the vast and magnificent vistas of the western parks touched a responsive chord in Stanton who had never visited a national park. The college president was asked to recommend students to be summer seasonal employees and Stanton was selected along with four others. He was assigned to Grand Teton National Park, but to get there he had to borrow $250 from a white farmer who had employed his father to buy a uniform, a train ticket to the park, and to purchase food until his first paycheck arrived.
Working as part of a racially integrated staff (and living in an integrated bunk house) was new to Stanton:
I grew up in segregated Texas. All the local parks were segregated. I came from a low-income family, and we didn't have the resources for vacations or travel. We worked in the fields in the summer. I grew up in a rural area, so I was no stranger to the out-of-doors, but I had never gone into an integrated work situation. There was no one in my family with whom I could confer or ask, "What might I expect as an employee in a national park?" I had no frame of reference.
He was employed at Grand Teton in the summers of 1962 and 1963 working at the parks entrance station as a law enforcement officer and on resource conservation. On his days off, he worked at a nearby Wyoming ranch to earn extra money. Working in an integrated situation was a challenge both for Stanton and for the Grand Teton staff who were experiencing integration for the first time. However, he was fortunate in having as his supervisors, superintendent Harthon "Spud" Bill (Pugsley Medal 1970) and Russell E. Dickenson, chief park ranger (Pugsley Medal 1974) who paid thoughtful attention to him. He later reflected, "We were generally welcomed into the workforce and made to feel part of the organization. I realized then, that this was a fine agency." Unfortunately, not all of the African Americans recruited with him had similarly positive experiences at other parks. At the end of his career, Stanton reflected that at Grand Teton he was working with people who were "comfortable in their own professionalism and had the courage to reach out."
After graduating with a B.S. in physical science (primarily chemistry and mathematics) from Huston-Tillotson in 1963, Huston-Tillotson awarded him a grant-in-aid to pursue graduate work in public relations and communications at Boston University with the objective of returning to assume the position of director of public relations and alumni affairs. He held this position from 1964 to 1966. This position gave him the necessary experience that facilitated his return to the NPS in 1966 as a personnel management and public information specialist in the Washington D.C. office.
In 1969, he moved to National Capital Parks -- Central, Washington, D.C., as a management assistant. In 1970, Stanton became superintendent of National Parks -- East, in Washington D.C. and Maryland, which made him the first African American to be appointed superintendent in the NPS. One of the achievements of which he was most proud in those early days at Capital Parks, was the restoration of the Frederick Douglass home. "It had pained me to see it boarded up. It was a wonderful feeling to open it and have the late black historian Benjamin Quarles call the work "a marvel of preservation." Douglass's legacy was a source of strength and inspiration to Stanton, throughout his life.
In 1971, Stanton was appointed superintendent of Virgin Islands National Park, and in 1974, he became deputy regional director of the southeast region in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1977, Stanton returned to Washington D.C. as assistant director of park operations. In 1978, he moved on to become deputy regional director for the National Capital Region, a position which he held for eight years. In 1987, he returned to headquarters as associate director for park management operations.
In 1988, he became regional director of the National Capital Region (NCR), where he served until his initial retirement from the NPS in 1997. The NCR system in metropolitan Washington is a microcosm of the nationwide park system. In that system, are large natural areas, such as Rock Creek Park; historical areas, such as the Mall, Antietam National Battlefield; Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, the White House and the Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln Memorials; and recreation areas, such as the Catoctin, Greenbelt, and Prince William Forest Parks. Moreover, the management problems in the National Capital Parks are similar to those encountered in the parks nationwide. The 40 units in the Capital Parks System attracted 38 million annual visits. Thus, it was good preparation for his subsequent position as director of the NPS system. Indeed, a long-time parks official observed that the director of the Capital Region is a more difficult job in some ways than being NPS director, "because he has got more than 500 bosses up in Congress, and guess who they call every time they want to get on the golf course at Hains Point or want a tree planted or a tour arranged."
As regional director of NCR -- one of seven regional directorships in the NPS -- Stanton was especially noted for his ability to generate volunteer initiatives. For example, when residents living in the vicinity of Washington's derelict, drug-infested, 12-acre Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X park and ignominiously known as the most violent national park in the NPS system -- came to Stanton with a request to help clean up the once elegant park, Stanton organized them enthusiastically into a Friends group. Drug dealers controlled the park, but within three years crime in the park dropped by eighty-two percent, attendance increased dramatically, new trees and flowers were planted, and water once again flowed in the park's fountain. A Meridian Hill park volunteer said, "Bob Stanton is a champion of these partnerships. We invite him to things, and he comes. That surprised me. At his level, he was still interested in our tree planting and lighting ceremonies." This highlighted another of Bob Stanton's strengths in that he was a hands-on manager who involved himself in much of the day-to-day operation of his region.
Stanton retired from the NPS in January 1997, but it was a short retirement, because seven months later, he accepted the President's invitation to become director of the agency. So the man who, as a youth, was refused access to most of his local public parks headed up an agency in charge of 83 million acres of the finest parkland in the US, with a budget of $1.6 billion. Stanton was the first director to be confirmed by the US Senate. Two highly respected senators, Paul Sarbanes (Maryland) and John Warner (Virgina) appeared before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in support of his nomination. Senator Sarbanes observed "Throughout his 34-year career with the Park Service, Bob Stanton has distinguished himself with his leadership, commitment and dedication...I cannot think of a stronger advocate for our National Park System." Senator Warner characterized Stanton as "a soldier's soldier, one who has proven to be cool under fire...often his love and passion for parks has brought about some considerable battlefield fire...For example, Bob Stanton was the even, steady hand throughout the controversy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial...The controversy across the country was great and I remember with great respect the work of our nominee."
He was unanimously confirmed by the US Senate as the agency's fifteenth director and its first African-American head. His unanimous confirmation reflected the bipartisan and inclusive approach to problem solving and cooperative land stewardship which he followed throughout his career. It earned him widespread respect, and enabled him to build effective relationships with the US Congress and the wide array of other stakeholders associated with the national parks.
His appointment was popular with a wide spectrum of NPS stakeholders. For example, the National Parks and Conservation Association commented:
Bob has the depth of first-hand knowledge of park issues that can only come from a long career with the park service. We are glad to see that the President chose an NPS leader from among the service's ranks. We are glad to see that the political gamesmanship that can paralyze Washington did not get in the way of a swift nomination.
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt (Pugsley Medal 2000) remarked, "I was struck by the extraordinary skill he has in defusing problems and winning people's confidence" and commented on his "energy, commitment and leadership ability." Another peer observed, "He has a born sense of what the Park Service is all about, at the same time, he stays close and involved with the individual parks." Stanton worked with Laurance Rockefeller (Pugsley Medal 2004) for over 30 years on resource protection programs at many national park units, especially at Grand Teton, Virgin Islands, and the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. In a letter to President Clinton, in support of his nomination for the director position, Rockefeller noted Stanton's leadership: "In his capacity as Field Director of the National Capital Region, he has been an outstanding example of a Park Service executive working in an urban area with sensitivity and good judgment." Also, Dr. Dorothy I Height, chair and president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women, in her letter to President Clinton noted: "He has distinguished himself by bringing into whatever he does, respect for the great diversity of people and equal concern for advancing the purposes and goals of the National Park Service."
As a career professional in the NPS, Stanton had intimate knowledge of all facets of the organization, close ties with its stakeholders, and a clear understanding of the oversight role of Congress. Most directors who preceded and succeeded him came from "outside" the NPS and so lacked the depth of knowledge which Stanton possessed and immediate respect of both career staff and park service advocates of the agency which were afforded to him.
Under Stanton's leadership, the NPS budget increased by 28% and major park preservation and visitor service programs were initiated including the National Resource Challenge, (NRC), Public Land Corps, and co-sponsorship of the Save America's Treasures Program. The NRC resulted in the NPS science and Natural Resource Management program budget being increased from $80 million to $140 million over the following four years. He launched an aggressive recruiting initiative, which included a cultural diversity interns program, to bring women and minorities into agency roles. For example, the number of minorities employed in summer seasonal jobs increased by 31% in 1998. Throughout his career, Stanton has been a role model and an inspiration to many, especially African-Americans. It has been observed that the NPS remains alien to many African-Americans and members of other minority groups. Among Stanton's goals as director, was to make the NPS more relevant to urban dwellers, especially non-whites.
What I believe is one of the major challenges of the Park Service is to convey the significance of these parks. As more information is made available and more educational opportunity becomes available to people irrespective of their economic, social, ethnic or racial backgrounds, the greater their appreciation will be for their own heritage...Philosophically, it's just a matter of the Park Service reaching out to all sectors of the community to make sure every citizen has the opportunity to learn a little bit more and increase appreciation of his or her own heritage as perceived in the national parks.
Nine new park units and six national heritage areas were authorized during his tenure, many of which were intended to reflect the cultures and histories of minority groups because Stanton noted; "They won't see much value in preserving public lands to which they have little connection. We have a responsibility to preserve and interpret those areas that speak to the contributions that all Americans made to the growth of the nation."
The challenges with which Stanton was confronted in his youth led to a life-long passion. "I insisted, that young people, especially those in the inner city, be involved in our programs. I underscored it as a priority. It is the accomplishment I am most proud of." Invariably, he ended his speeches with a quotation from Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, "I leave you finally, a responsibility to our people. The world around us really belongs to youth, for youth will take over its future management. Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world."
Stanton has been the recipient of four honorary doctorate degrees from Huston-Tillotson; Unity College, Maine; Southern University, Baton Rouge; and from Texas A&M University. The Texas A&M citation noted, "This recognition is in tribute to your distinguished and pioneering professional career in the National Park Service and as a lifelong conservationist, advocate for diversity, and champion for education." He kept close ties with his alma mater, supporting the Bethel L. Stanton scholarship named in memory of his mother, and facilitating internship and post-graduation job opportunities for the college's students with the NPS.
After he retired as director in 2001, Stanton accepted academic positions teaching graduate students as the Dorothy McCluskey visiting fellow in Conservation at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, as senior fellow in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University, and as visiting professor in the History Department at Howard University. He also served as a consultant for the Natural Resource Council of America and from 2001- 2003 was the IUCN's ambassador for the 5th World Parks Congress that was held in Durban, South Africa, in September 2003. He currently serves on the board of directors of several national conservation and youth-serving organizations.
Stanton's technical and leadership abilities are reinforced by his effervescent personality which exudes warmth, sincerity and enthusiasm. Despite his accomplishments and the accolades he has received, Stanton remains an unostentatious, modest and humble man. Noble Samuel, former National Park Service and U.S. Virgin Islands government official noted, "Bob never boasted about himself or what he wanted to do. He just did it." Ira Hutchison (Pugsley Medal 1997), one of his peers in the NPS observed, "Bob has consistently exhibited courage and humility; aggressiveness and compassion; and a startling capacity to make those he leads and those he serves, respect, trust and follow him, always holding him in the highest esteem."
McDonnell, J.A. (2006) Oral history interview with Robert G. Stanton. Washington DC: National Park Service Park History Program.