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Park impresses new leader

February 21, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Special to The Herald-Mail

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- Rebecca Harriett took a roundabout route through the National Park Service on her way to Harpers Ferry.

The newly appointed superintendent of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park succeeded Don Campbell, who held the job for 29 years until he retired in July.

Harriett began her journey 30 years ago while working on a degree in parks and recreation management at North Carolina State University. The course required an internship, which she landed at Cape Lookout National Seashore on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

A park aide, she did grunt work such as maintenance, aiding visitors, and tagging sea turtles and marking their nests.

"I was having fun," she said. "I was a jack-of-all-trades, and it was a way to get my feet on the ground."

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After graduation in 1980, Harriett got a summer job at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway, Alaska. She worked as an interpreter and gave tours at the park from May to October.

Her training involved hiking the 33-mile rugged Chilkoot Trail in May, normally a three-day jaunt.

"We hit snow on the pass," she said. "It took us five days in the cold."

The park has two sites, the main one at Skagway and a museum in Seattle, which was the starting point for gold miners heading to the strike in Alaska in the late 19th century.

Out of a job, Harriett stopped at the museum in Seattle and met the superintendent, who urged her to apply for an opening there.

"They wanted someone with experience at the park in Alaska," she said.

Harriett had just returned to North Carolina when the Seattle offer arrived. She spent the next three years in Washington before returning to North Carolina and a job at Cape Lookout Point as a park law enforcement officer.

"I wanted a broader experience," Harriett said of her work as an armed park police officer. "A park ranger does a little of everything."

In 1983, she met Robert Lamar, a law enforcement officer at Cape Lookout whom she married three years later.

In 1986, Harriett transferred to George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond, Mo. Two months later, her husband became a ranger at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield in Missouri, 70 miles from her post.

"The park service supports dual-career couples," she said.

Harriett's next move took her to Friendship Hill National Historical Park in southwestern Pennsylvania in 1991.

The couple moved to Morgantown, W.Va., so he could attend West Virginia University, and she commuted to her job in Pennsylvania.

They left Morgantown in 1995, when Harriett became superintendent of the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Franklin County, Va., a post she held until she began her new duties in Harpers Ferry three weeks ago.

Her husband teaches at Ferrum (Va.) College. The couple has two sons, Thaddeus, 18, and Matthew, 16, both in high school.

Harriett already is involved with her new duties, meeting the park's staff of about 90 employees and learning the park's history, resources and programs.

Harriett said she is impressed with everything and everyone she has seen and met.

"The staff is very passionate," she said. "Many have been here for a long time and their institutional knowledge adds depth to what they do."

The park is in good condition and the buildings well cared for, she said.

"There's just so many layers of history to talk about here," she said.

This year, the park celebrates the 150th anniversary of abolitionist John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry. It will be a year filled with activities marking the event, Harriett said. The celebration's Web site -- www.johnbrownraid.org -- offers a list of activities.

Campbell's nearly 30-year reign brought major improvements and saved hundreds of acres from developers' bulldozers. By the time he retired, the park had grown to more than 3,700 acres.

Harpers Ferry became part of the National Park system in 1944.

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