I got where I am through a twist of fate. First, a motorcycle accident played a big part in my enrollment at Keene State College. And second, while the work I do now doesn’t have much connection to my major, interestingly enough, my major helped me land my first park ranger job.
I grew up in Laconia, in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. I was interested in wildlife conservation and conservation law as a young man. I also had a keen interest in the medical field, due to the exposure I received with many of my family members working in the health care industry. Hence, I set out for a career in physical therapy and landed at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, where I focused on physical therapy and allied health science – unfortunately, at the time, there were no bachelor’s degrees being offered for physical therapy programs in New Hampshire.
The last two years of high school and the summer after my freshman year in college, I had a job in manufacturing in Franklin, New Hampshire, to help fund my education expenses. On a sunny morning in August, I was riding my motorcycle to work and a car came out of a side street and hit me. I flew up over the car and ended up with several injuries and a serious burst fracture to my L4 vertebra. The orthopedic surgeon who put me back together said, “You were extremely lucky. The bone fragments just missed your spinal cord. You just missed being paralyzed.” This gave me a new found appreciation for life and mobility, which has inspired me to do more for universal accessibility. Although the accident was a negative, it changed my life in many ways for the positive.
With a long recovery and occupational therapy ahead, I needed to remain close to home. I checked out Keene State College’s athletic training/sports medicine program. It was a perfect fit, and would keep me on track for an allied health career. I started in the spring term and absolutely loved it. It was the place I should have been right along. I loved the community, the campus, the professors, and the students. Athletic training was an amazing program and very demanding of my time. Dr. Sherry Bovinet and Bob Merrow were my mentors, teaching me a wide range of therapeutic modalities, treatment of sports injury, and other skills to prepare me and my peers for emergencies on and off the field. We had to put in 1,500 clinical hours and complete our competence skills. It is a fabulous program that provides lots of hands-on experience. I worked with athletes on a number of Keene State sports teams. Many of those athletes are still longtime friends and a few have Hall of Fame recognition at Keene State.
The year I graduated, ’91, was when Desert Storm kicked up. The country was in a recession and there weren’t a lot of job opportunities for athletic trainers. With encouragement from my advisors I applied for a graduate assistantship at Norwich University, but I didn’t get it. I realized in that specific time period I was in a very specialized niche with sports medicine, so I was looking at rehab centers, schools, universities. No one was hiring, and the opportunities were not there. I decided to bite the bullet and go to grad school. I went to Plymouth State for a Master’s in Business Administration, thinking that might open some doors into the managerial side of health care. Through the career services office up there I found out about a summer job with the US Army Corps of Engineers. But here’s the thing: Plymouth State helped introduce me to the US Army Corps of Engineers, but it was actually my Keene State degree in sports medicine that helped land the job.
I was hired as a temporary ranger at Elm Brook Park in Hopkinton because the park manager wanted a park ranger with the know-how to deal with medical emergencies. That first summer, a boy had a seizure on the beach. I was there, along with an off-duty paramedic and nurse. The three of us were able to control the scene and help the young boy. As we activated EMS, I was able to locate his mother, who was not at the beach. My boss was very impressed with how things were handled.
My second summer at Elm Brook Park, my boss called me into his office. “You know,” he said, “you have these skill sets.” He liked the way I communicated with the public; he liked my quick thinking with emergencies, especially medical emergencies. Rangers are typically the first responders if someone gets injured. We’re not paramedics, but we’re the first on the scene. Activating 911, doing all the first aid – that was second nature to me because of the sports medicine program at Keene State.
I finished my MBA and was hired as an entry-level park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers here at Edward MacDowell Lake in Peterborough. I was thrilled with my new job location since Peterborough is not far from Keene State. I grew to love the Peterborough community. I learned everything I could about the local watershed, about the flood control mission here to protect residents and property, the flora, the fauna in the Monadnock region, along with working with the general public and going to schools to spread the message of environmental stewardship. I started in 1995 at Elm Brook Park and then I was assigned to Edward MacDowell Lake from 1996 to 2004. Then I transferred over to Otter Brook and Surrey Mountain Lakes in the Keene area and worked there for four-and-a-half years, then returned to Edward MacDowell Lake when the manager position opened up in July of 2009.
This place, Edward MacDowell Lake, has always been special to me. The landscape, it’s like a little gem. People come here to landscape paint or play music. In summertime, it gets real busy. We’ve had weddings and birthday parties and family reunions. My wife’s company even hosted a baby shower here for our firstborn. We’ve also seen high school get-togethers and the occasional retirement party. There’s a badge of honor, too, in working at a place that was named after an artist. If you think about it, a lot of your federal buildings and structures, they’re named after presidents, senators, congressmen, sometimes even generals. But an artist? Edward MacDowell summered nearby, and he and his wife started the MacDowell Colony, a retreat for artists, here in Peterborough. He was a very noted composer in his day, but a lot of people now, if you ask them, can’t name any of the music that he wrote. “Woodlands Sketches” is one of the more famous pieces.
The US Army Corps of Engineers was authorized to build and operate this dam on the Nubanusit Brook in the late 1940s after the town of Peterborough flooded during the huge storm of 1936 and again in the hurricane of 1938. The dam regulates water flow, so if we have an issue with high water, we can store 4.2 billion gallons of flood water within the reservoir rather than flooding the town and other communities within the Merrimack River Basin. When we are not storing flood water we’ve got recreational opportunities for the public – hiking, swimming, picnicking, boating, hunting, and fishing – and we’re also responsible for protecting our natural resources. We are currently working on a habitat enhancement project for turtles on the property with many local partners and NH Fish and Game. There’s also a lot of history here. There were mills up and down the Nubanusit; you can see some of the old mill races. And the land here includes a plot that was owned during the French and Indian Wars by Colonel William Thornton, the brother of Matthew Thornton, who signed the Declaration of Independence. I feel privileged to work here among so much history. When children come in from the area schools, we talk about managing the watersheds but also the flood control mission, and I tell them, you know, you think about the tough times the people had in the late 1920s with the Great Depression. People were just coming out of those hard years and then they got hit with two natural disasters, two years apart. It sets everything back. That’s when you realize that you have to have a plan and you have to implement strategies to help alleviate those risks. They get it.
Matt Cummings, my staff member, and I maintain and operate the dam. We work with our reservoir control center, a team of hydrological engineers with the US Army Corps of Engineers. They’ve got an interesting work area; it’s like a mini NASA center down in Concord, Mass. They collect weather observations and get data from river gauges throughout the region. Our Geotechnical branch of Engineers are also on standby if there are any abnormalities in the pressure of the water against the earthen dam; they can pick up readings from our piezometers through a satellite feed. I get a call when we reach critical elevations. I have a 40-minute response time to get over here and close the gates if we’re getting to a critical level or if the reservoir starts to really rise. This facility controls about a quarter of the water volume flowing into the Contoocook River, which is major tributary of the Merrimack River.
The Corps of Engineers has provided a lot of training for me on the natural resource side. I went out to Montana to learn about rivarian ecology, to Santa Fe for cultural resource training, and to Fort Collins for wildlife management. And my staff includes people with environmental science backgrounds and natural resource management backgrounds, so we complement each other with our different skill sets.
I’ve also had the opportunity to help out after natural disasters – mainly hurricanes. The one that really stands out for me was Katrina. I worked an Emergency Operations detail as a QA roofing inspector in Operation “Restore Hope” on the Mississippi side. As I was going door-to-door to get permission to go on people’s property to assess the damage, I was learning about these horrific things – like when Katrina hit, the winds and rain and flooding were bad enough, but the tidal surge was really terrible. The folks in the bayside end of town closer to the Gulf of Mexico – some of them had relatives that got swept out from the surge, people who lost their lives out at sea. I had gone on other hurricane missions, and I hadn’t seen human loss like that. I was down there for 30 days, 12- to 13-hour days with no days off because it is an emergency detail. Two weeks into that operation, Hurricane Rita struck. Some of the temporary roofs that we had put in place came off. We had to go back and fix them again. I also did wildland firefighting in Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada with the US Forest Service.
My wife often reminds me that “Behind every successful man, there is a strong, wise, and hardworking woman.” She looked after our daughters and worked full-time, giving me the opportunity to follow my dreams and attain my professional goals. Outside of work, our daughters, Marguerite, who’s 13, and Natalie, who’s 11, keep us busy. They’re into sports, horses, and drama club. My wife, Laura, is a graduate admissions officer at New England College in Henniker. She lets me know when the river is cresting and flooding the local area! Nothing like keeping it in the family.
Sometime in the future I’d like to work in higher education in some capacity. There are a couple of schools that specialize in natural resource management for Park Rangers. I would like to teach others with similar interests and pass the torch to them.
I feel like the work we do here at the US Army Corps of Engineers really makes a difference. We’re protecting the resources for generations to come and the flood control mission makes a difference for life and property. I feel good about that.
I am really glad I had the opportunity to attend Keene State College because I really value the education, my experiences there, and the friendships that I gained at Keene State College. It has made a difference.