Ben H. Bolen (1917-2008) received the Pugsley Medal in 1970 for his leadership in expanding the Virginia state park system. Bolen was born and raised in the small community of Fancy Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia. He graduated from Hillsville High School and attended Emory and Henry College, after which he joined the Virginia Highway Department in 1936.
In 1950, Bolen was appointed the first superintendent of Claytor Lake State Park. He was equipped with "one typewriter, a box of stationery, a dump truck, and a foreman." During his 10 years in that position, he directed the extensive development at the park, which included construction of cabins, campgrounds, stables, a beach area, and other facilities. Bolen used his experiences at Claytor Lake to master the business of park management and to develop ideas that subsequently resulted in dramatic change in state park policies when he became commissioner.
In 1960, he was appointed assistant commissioner and one year later became the third commissioner of the Virginia Division of State Parks since the inception of the system in 1930. His 20 years in this position was characterized by steady growth and development of the system. The number of state parks increased from 15 to 37, and attendance went from 971,000 to 3.16 million visits. When he became commissioner, Bolen had the opportunity to address some of the problems he had encountered at Claytor Lake and to implement some of the visionary ideas he had been formulating while in that position.
Firmly believing in the value of an interpretive program to enhance visitor enjoyment of state parks, Bolen devised the first interpretive program in the state on his own desk in Richmond, armed with a slide projector, borrowed slides and a small staff gathered in his office. They all watched as the slides flashed upon the wall, and together, worked up a script. The idea took hold, and he began to refine the program. Knowing of the high caliber and sophistication of the National Park Service interpretive presentations, Bolen made a great effort to learn all he could from them and then set out to implement the best parts of that program throughout the state.
With the memory of his own struggle to master the business of park management at Claytor Lake as a young engineer fresh out of patching mudholes with the Department of Highways and Transportation, Bolen tackled the need for staff training programs with a vengeance. He later recalled, “At the time, there was only one university park management curriculum on the east coast, at North Carolina State. I used to gather up my staff, and take them down to extension courses on park management whenever I could." Bolen laid down a firm philosophy for the Division of State Parks. He explained:
I traveled extensively to other states when I first became Commissioner and watched other parks develop resort-type facilities. I had the opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of the resort versus the passive park concept, and based on the capital our state park system had at its disposal, I decided that the best way of serving the most people at the least cost was a passive park system. Our philosophy is to first preserve historic and natural resources in Virginia for the people at the least cost to the taxpayers. Besides, our park employees are not trained to be involved in commercial enterprises. Our park employees are not trained in hotel management or catering services, nor should they be. Their first priority is the management of the natural resource.
A computerized reservation system for state parks was another of Bolen's innovative programs. "We were the first park system to use a computerized reservation system on the East Coast,” he recalled. Seeing it first in operation in California, Bolen brought the concept to the East, and reservations through Ticketron were accepted for campgrounds up to 90 days in advance. "We eliminated quite a few fistfights at campgrounds with the introduction of this system," he later recalled.
Other notable accomplishments of his tenure included establishing a bike trail system in several state park areas; developing recreational facilities for the handicapped in state parks; and launching a volunteer program.
Bolen was an efficient and imaginative administrator, articulate and firm in his decisions, who constantly pushed for improvements. His staff learned that his "bark was worse than his bite," and appreciated his personal warmth and concern for their welfare. One of his peers articulated the views of many when he said, "Ben Bolen has been a model of dedication to public service as well as a consistently effective advocate of improved outdoor recreational opportunities and for the betterment of man and man's environment."
One of four governors for whom he worked observed, “Ben is a man of great integrity and imagination. I hold him in the highest regard as one of the Commonwealth's most effective administrators and as a man with commitments I personally respect." Another of those governors commented, "The sense of humor with which you have always approached every job and problem has endeared you to many, including your governor." This was exemplified in the first paragraph of his retirement letter to the governor:
I’m 64 years old now and on December 31, 1981, I will have been employed by the Commonwealth of Virginia for 45 years and eight months; twenty years of which I have been in my present position [of Commissioner]. So while I can still remember people's names, jog a mile before breakfast, enjoy a stiff drink before dinner and appreciate the sight of a pretty girl walking down the street on a windy day, it seems best that I retire.
To learn as much as he could about the presentation and development of state park systems, he attended and became deeply involved in state, regional and national professional organizations and was president of most of them. He was one of the founders of the National Association of State Park Directors in 1963 and served as its president from 1965-1967, and was president of the National Conference on State Parks when it celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1971.
In 1988, seven years after his retirement, his reputation and expertise were still widely acknowledged and led to his appointment by the governor to serve as a member of the Board of Conservation and Historic Resources.
(1982, March). Ben Bolen leaves legacy of strong state park system. The Virginia Outdoors, 13(1), 7.