Blue Ridge Parkway ranger trades outdoors for classroom

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ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — Here are a few of the things Peter Givens will not see at his new workplace:

A black bear staring at him across Rock Castle Creek. A dead deer with its hindquarters sticking out of the smashed windshield of a car, whose driver was badly shaken but unhurt. Thirsty Appalachian Trail hikers taking a shortcut to the Peaks of Otter. Fiddlers and banjo players putting on a bluegrass music concert.

Givens has seen all this and more in his 25 years as a park ranger and interpretive specialist for the Blue Ridge Parkway.

"I have been truly blessed to do the things I've been able to do," Givens said.

He's loved the job in the parkway's Vinton office, which has involved telling the parkway's many stories and celebrating the mountain culture he loves. But his parkway career will come to an end in January, when he moves into a full-time teaching position at Virginia Western Community College. Even there, he will tell the stories of the mountains in his Appalachian history classes.

At 61, he said he is ready for a change and new challenges. He has worked for the National Park Service for more than 35 years in a career that included stops at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico and Cowpens National Battlefield in South Carolina.

"This is certainly a huge loss for the parkway with his retirement," said Bobby Miller, the parkway's chief ranger for the Plateau District, which includes the Roanoke region. Miller has worked with Givens during his entire tenure.

"His passion for the parkway and love for the parkway is unmatched," Miller said. "There's a lot of institutional knowledge lost with his retirement."

Givens is leaving at a time when the park service budget is stagnant, staffing has been significantly reduced, parkway visitation has declined, and the task of persuading a younger generation obsessed with the Internet, smartphones and video games to visit the parkway has been difficult.

Givens is no slouch when it comes to using technology to benefit the park service. He has managed the parkway's website since it was created nearly 20 years ago. He updates the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. These days, though, he'd rather connect with people in the classroom than online.

"You have to jump through so many technology hoops to reach the younger generation," he said. "We need to be rethinking how we do the social media for the parkway. It's time for someone with the skills to do what needs to be done. I'm ready to do something else."

Givens' last day with the parkway is Jan. 2. Ten days later, he will begin teaching two American history courses during the spring semester. In the fall, he will teach an Appalachian history class that will cover folklore, history, literature, music, environmental issues and the stereotypes that have dogged mountain folks for generations.

Appalachia "is more than just a collection of quaint stuff," said Givens, who has taught classes part time at Virginia Western for eight years. "You've got a banjo player and a spinning wheel, and people think you've got Appalachia."

He has had plenty of experience dispelling Appalachian stereotypes in his parkway job. For decades, the National Park Service was one of the major perpetrators of mountain mythologies, especially when it came to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

As far back as the parkway's early construction in the 1930s, architects sought to tell a story of Appalachia that scrubbed away the tint of 20th century modernity. Two-story farmhouses were torn down and replaced with log cabins along the parkway's corridor. The parkway, which cuts a 469-mile swath through some of the most spectacular countryside on the East Coast, was designed to bring people to see a landscape and a culture frozen in time.

"The parkway is a classic example" of Appalachian myth-making, Givens said. "In the 1930s and '40s, creating a quaint impression was definitely part of the design."

As the parkway's sole interpretive specialist, Givens' job has been to get the facts straight. He has been in charge of writing and editing parkway guidebooks, creating new exhibits and developing visitors centers along the route that tell a more accurate story.

He helped create or modify the visitors centers at Humpback Rocks, Explore Park and the Blue Ridge Music Center. He helped oversee the installation of the Roots of American Music exhibit in the 17,000-square-foot music center near Galax, which pays tribute to Southwest Virginia's musical heritage. The project was a favorite for a guy who can play a little banjo, mandolin and fiddle.

"I'm a rank amateur musician," he said, "While working on the music center, I'd think, 'Boy, it's hard to believe I get paid for this.'?"

Givens and his wife, Carole, are both from Taylorsville, North Carolina, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After earning a degree in history from Lenoir-Rhyne College, he was working on a master's degree at Western Carolina, not sure what topic to choose for his thesis and what career he wanted to pursue.

A professor's suggestion that Givens interview the historian for Great Smoky Mountains National Park proved to be inspirational for the young grad student. Givens learned about a mountain community called Cataloochee, which had been absorbed into the park in the 1920s. After he did his research, he decided he wanted to work for the park service.

"I thought, 'I can do this with my history degree,'?" he said.

He got a summer job at Abraham Lincoln's homeplace, then worked at Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns before settling for six years at Cowpens, site of a pivotal Revolutionary War battle. In 1989, he and his young family moved to Vinton, where he and Carole still live. The couple, married for 39 years, has two adult sons.

"We never wanted to live anywhere else," he said.

Givens' work in Roanoke has been typified by his easygoing style and ability to work closely with different groups, from speaking at schools to working with parkway advocates to giving weekly updates for years on WFIR-AM (960).

"Peter has a remarkable way of dealing with people," said Mark Woods, superintendent for the parkway and a man who has known Givens for more than 30 years, when both were rangers in South Carolina.

"He has a passion for the park service, and service is at the core of who he is and what he does. He handles things with a high degree of integrity and professionalism."

Miller, the parkway ranger who has worked in this district since the late 1980s, echoed Woods' sentiment.

"Peter always helped remind me to consider the visitor's perspective," Miller said. "Sometimes it's easy to lose that. Peter never lost it."

Things have changed dramatically in his office and along the parkway in recent years. In his early days in the Vinton office, parkway tourism grew steadily every year. However, visitation has dropped steadily (although the numbers ticked up slightly this year) and Congress has kept the park service's budget mostly flat — which, accounting for inflation, means that there's actually less money for parkway projects.

Givens said that 27 employees worked in the Vinton office in the late 1980s and early '90s. Today, there are 11. When he started, the parkway had three interpretive specialists, now it's just him. When he retires, his job will be filled, but his successor will be based at the parkway headquarters in Asheville.

"The whole trend has been disturbing," he said. "People have to decide how important the national parks will be for the next generation. How are the parks going to engage and intrigue them and interest them? When I was growing up, the parkway was a significant part of my life. I took my future wife there on picnics after church. Maybe it's not as important to the next generation."

That will be someone else's concern. Givens is looking forward to spending more time fishing for brook trout and preparing for classes.

"I can't wait to bring my experiences into an academic setting," he said. "In the park service, we like to think we are preserving real experiences for people. 'That's where Lincoln stood.' 'That's where a significant battle of the Revolution took place.' I feel like I'm exchanging history on the ground for history in the classroom."


Information from: The Roanoke Times,

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