George B. Hartzog Jr., 88; Expanded Nation's Park System

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

George B. Hartzog Jr., a former director of the National Park Service, who led an unprecedented expansion of the nation's system of parks, wildlife refuges and historic sites and who helped secure passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, died June 27 at Virginia Hospital Center of complications from diabetes and kidney disease. He was 88 and lived in McLean.

In almost nine years as director, Mr. Hartzog used personal charisma, political savvy and deep-rooted knowledge of the nation's park system to increase the scope of Park Service programs and to raise their popularity. He ran the agency like a benevolent dictator, expanding its mission from wilderness conservation to make it the principal guardian of the nation's historic patrimony.

He added more than 70 new areas to the Park Service, totaling 2.7 million acres, and doubled attendance at the nation's parks and historic sites. He was also the only Park Service director to be profiled in the New Yorker magazine and to be fired by President Richard M. Nixon.

"He was an empire builder," said Robert M. Utley, who was the Park Service's chief historian under Mr. Hartzog. "His vision fit right into Lyndon Johnson's Great Society ideas."

Except for the Park Service's founders, Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, Utley said, "I judge George Hartzog the greatest director in the history of the service."

Mr. Hartzog expanded the reach of the Park Service in urban areas, introduced programs for volunteers and inner-city youth and promoted living history interpretations by park rangers, now a standard element at historic sites around the country. He conceived the transformation of Union Station from a crumbling train terminal to a national visitors center and developed the concept of cultural parks, with the establishment of Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.

In 1966, Mr. Hartzog was a key proponent of the National Historic Preservation Act, which increased the range of historically significant properties and created the National Register of Historic Places. The register is administered by the Park Service.

In 1969, when his budget was cut by Nixon, Mr. Hartzog made a daring countermove: He closed all the national parks, including the Washington Monument and Grand Canyon, two days a week.

"It was unheard of," he told Parks & Recreation Magazine in 2005. "Even my own staff thought I was crazy."

As public outcry grew, Congress restored the funding.

Mr. Hartzog could be capricious in his personnel decisions, but he also expanded opportunities for women and minorities. He appointed the first African American park superintendent and promoted women to top jobs. In 1968, he named Grant Wright chief of the U.S. Park Police, the first African American to lead a federal police force.

Stewart L. Udall, the former secretary of the Interior who named Mr. Hartzog the Park Service's director in 1964, once called him "one of the most inspiring leaders I worked with during my years in the federal government. . . . George Hartzog reminds us of the glories of public service and the legacies our best bureaucrats leave to future generations."

Mr. Hartzog was born March 27, 1920, in rural Smoaks, S.C. He grew up in poverty and was preaching in local churches by the time he was 16. When the family's farmhouse burned down, the Hartzogs had to survive on charity.

Mr. Hartzog attended Wofford College in South Carolina for one semester before dropping out to make a living. He worked in gas stations and hotels before taking a job as a clerk in a law office in Walterboro, S.C. In less than three years, he passed the state bar exam, without having spent a day in law school.

He served in an Army military police unit in World War II. He worked briefly at the Interior Department before joining the Park Service's legal office in 1946. In 1959, he landed in St. Louis as superintendent of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

While there, he was responsible for building one of the nation's most notable landmarks.

"It was Mr. Hartzog," John McPhee wrote in the New Yorker in 1971, "who took a set of plans that had been lying dormant for fifteen years and built the great arch of St. Louis."

Mr. Hartzog worked for a St. Louis redevelopment agency for a short time, only to rejoin the Park Service as associate director in 1963. In less than a year, he was named director.

Not everyone was enamored of Mr. Hartzog's outsize personality, and some conservation groups thought he was too eager to build roads and houses in national parks. But his greatest enemy proved to be a president.

"Most of the Park Service came to love the man," Utley said.

But one person he couldn't please was Nixon. In 1972, Mr. Hartzog revoked a permit to use a private dock in Biscayne National Park in Florida. The permit was used by Bebe Rebozo, a close friend of Nixon's. The president promptly fired Mr. Hartzog.

For the remainder of his life, Mr. Hartzog practiced environmental law and spoke about issues facing the nation's parks. He wrote an autobiography, "Battling for the National Parks," in 1988.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Helen Hartzog of McLean; three children, Nancy Hartzog of New Bedord, Mass., George B. Hartzog III of Bloomington, Ind., and Edward Hartzog of New York; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Describing why he considered the park system so important to the nation's well-being, Mr. Hartzog once said, "The need for people to get outdoors and have an association with the land is inherent in us as human beings."

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