Turnover brings new faces to Vicksburg’s National Military Park

Published 6:39 pm Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Vicksburg National Military Park has seen a turnover in employees over the past two years as longtime park employees opt to take retirement and others move on to other positions in the National Park Service, park Superintendent Bill Justice said.

To date, he said, 17 people have left the park; nine of those retiring and seven transferring to other parks. “We’ve also had the misfortune of having (two) people pass in the last two years, and we miss them a lot,” he said.

Justice said the employees retiring “were people who came here in the 70s and 80s, and they all decided to retire right now.”

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“Most of the time, a park will not have a staff that is a long-term stable staff; usually they’ll be people who are rotating through. You’ll have new people coming through. We have less of that here at Vicksburg over time.

“Some people actually came from Vicksburg, Elizabeth Joiner, I believe, was from the local area, and she was our (museum) curator,” he said. “A lot of maintenance folks have been here a long time because they’re just to linked to the community.”

Others, he said, came to Vicksburg from other parks and decided to stay, and when they left, Justice said, the park lost a wealth of knowledge about the park and its assets.

“You add that up, and you’ve got just a ton of institutional knowledge in this park that has just left. “And it’s all kinds of things. It’s the knowledge of everything; knowledge of the museum and (former chief of operations) Rick Martin, who knew how to run this park and did so for a lot of years. People like our various tractor operators, who knew just exactly how to mow the more difficult areas of the park and do it safely.”

That expertise and knowledge, however, is not totally lost, Justice said. Many retired longtime employees still live in Vicksburg and are willing to help the park staff. It’s an advantage the Military Park has over other parks in the National Park Service.

“Pretty much everyone of them have been pretty willing to say, ‘If you need me, give me a call,’ and we do that.

“When we really need them, we give them a call, and that’s probably the difference, the institutional knowledge from these folks when they were working here served them every single day, and we’re having to build that up.”

But the departure of older employees is also an advantage for the park, Justice said, an opportunity for the park.

“We bring in some new, very talented people with different perspectives, different understandings, maybe some different experience that will help the park,” he said.

“We’re becoming a different park in the process. Anytime you have different people come in, they’re going to see the park in different ways, and use their skills to bring something to the park that the park hasn’t seen before, and then you add the fact that we’ve got three new units that will be acquired by the park … in 10-20 years from now, it’s going to be different than it was before.”

One of the new people coming in is Eric Ford, the park’s new chief of maintenance, who comes to Vicksburg from the Cane River Creole National Historical Park in Natchitoches, La., where he held the same position.

“He comes to the park with a background in historical architecture and having worked at both of the Park Service’s historical preservation training centers, he comes to us with a skill set that is different than prior supervisors,” Justice said. “He comes to us with a different perspective. And that’s going to benefit the park in some ways.

An 18-year Park Service employee, Ford, who studied architecture at Tuskegee University, came to Vicksburg in 2005 as advisor on the restoration of the Pemberton House.

“I saw an opportunity to come here,” he said. “My family and I visited the park, and when the opportunity came up, I decided to take a chance. It turned out to be a little different than I expected, but the park has some wonderful resources, and with my background in architecture and historic preservation, I hope to be a big help to the park, and at the same time, I’m learning.”

Among his new responsibilities, he said, is the 16 miles of roads in the park and its 1,300 historic structures, including bridges, buildings, monuments, markers, the USS Cairo and the largest national cemetery in the National Park Service.

Another new arrival is Rachel Davidson, the park’s new chief law enforcement and resource manager, who is also responsible for the park’s natural resources, landscaping and the monuments and museums. She transferred here from the Natchez Trace Parkway, where she worked as an officer for 14 years.

“I came here because of the resource; to be out with the public, to protect the resources,” she said. “I enjoy history, I enjoy the challenge of park management. I’m new to management, so I love working with people.

“This park compared with the parkway, which is very linear, we have a very close family,” she said.

Molly Cadwell is a intern at the park responsible for organizing the park’s volunteer program, working with the volunteers and developing activities like Public Lands Day and Park Day.

“She’s doing a lot of good work and we’ve been able to increase the amount of time volunteers serve at our information desk and are more involved in volunteer programs and work days.

“We have volunteers taking photographs and a lot different things we’re able to do with volunteers that we haven’t been done before,” Justice said.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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