JOHNSON CITY, TEX. -- The long and diverse federal career of Harry O'Bryant, who now runs the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in the Texas Hill Country, began one April night 30 years ago as he was driving through Yosemite National Park en route from San Francisco to Nevada in search of a job.
A spring snowstorm had blocked the mountain roads in the park that night, so O'Bryant pulled over and camped in his beat-up 1950 Ford. His midnight snack was shared with a black bear that acted as though it were an invited guest, neatly opening a jar of jelly. That was the first encounter of an ursine kind for O'Bryant, who grew up in Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle and was trained as an engineer.
But it was what happened at sunrise the next morning that changed his life.
He arose to "the purest, cleanest, most spectacular view of nature I'd ever seen" -- mountains, blue skies, evergreens, deep clear lakes -- a sight so alluring that he abandoned his journey and stayed right there. Landing a job with the National Park Service, his first mission was cleaning snow off the very road that he could not pass. Within a year he was a firefighter and then a full-fledged ranger, living in a cabin in the High Sierras, 18 miles by horseback from the main station. During a decade there, he married a woman from Australia and began a family.
From that spontaneous beginning, O'Bryant's career has evolved with more order. Working for the National Park Service is not unlike the military: If you want to move up, you go where they want you to go. But sometimes that is not such a bad deal.
O'Bryant went from the Sierras to the Great Smokies, where he supervised craft operations for a federal Job Corps center, and from there to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Philadelphia for the Bicentennial, Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, New Orleans and finally, three years ago on Jan. 22, the 11th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson's death, arriving here in Johnson City to run the 500-acre park and ranch.
The Hill Country is a region of subtle beauty whose vistas of rolling hills, rivers, fields of wildflowers and stands of old live oak defy the stereotypical images of flat and dry Texas.
The national park -- an area that includes the house where LBJ was born, the ranch that he turned into his Texas White House, and the cemetery where he was buried under a modest, red granite gravestone -- sits along the Pedernales River about 60 miles west of Austin, the state capital. Johnson's widow, Lady Bird Johnson, spends about a third of her time at the ranch house, a third in Austin and a third traveling around the country.
The first thing O'Bryant was told before taking over in Johnson City was that he had to develop a good relationship with Lady Bird. No problem.
"She's a pistol, a delightful neighbor," he said. "A nondemanding neighbor, perhaps unlike her husband in that respect."
Living in Johnson City has forced O'Bryant to socialize more than usual. Not that this is a thriving metropolis (the population hovers around the 860 mark), but in villages of this size, O'Bryant has learned, everyone is expected to know everyone else.
In Yosemite or even in Baltimore or Philadelphia, he could spend his days in relative isolation, but here he finds himself constantly inquiring as to the health and happiness of hundreds of neighbors.
At lunch at Charles' cafe on Route 290 on the edge of town, O'Bryant, who dresses each day in his ranger uniform, shares stories with Charles, the domino-playing owner; Cubby, the local banker who wore a tie the other day for the first time this year (he said he only dresses fancy when his bank has hit hard times); all the local pols and lawyers, and Luke Kent a lanky, slow-moving, slow-talking turkey farmer who looks like a 70-year-old Clint Eastwood, with the same eye-crinkling smile.
One gets the sense that if anything ugly happened at the LBJ park, Luke and his cowpokes would mosey on up there to settle the score. But so far there has not been much need for a posse.
Lady Bird Johnson is still under Secret Service protection -- the agents keep watch on the ranch house from a little building out back. And during O'Bryant's three years here, he said, "We haven't had one incident. Shoot, we don't even have a problem with litter."
While that might be fitting for a park inhabited by the creator of the Keep America Beautiful campaign, it also points out a problem that perplexes O'Bryant. The place isn't getting enough visitors.
Last year 306,000 people toured the park and ranch, which is about 200,000 fewer than O'Bryant thinks it should attract, considering the yearly traffic counts on the highway and the park's proximity to Austin and San Antonio.
One section of the park, containing a farmhouse from which Johnson's grandfather rounded up longhorn cattle in the years after the Civil War, is a forgotten jewel, attracting fewer than 40,000 visitors each year. The park service used to run horse-drawn carriages out to this area, known as the Johnson Settlement, but had to drop them during the federal budget cutbacks of recent years.
The park receives $1.5 million in federal funds each year, and under agreement with the Johnson family is not allowed to charge admission.
A surprisingly large number of visitors are retired couples and senior citizens' tour groups. They usually joke about the Sears, Roebuck catalogue in the outhouse, and their most commonly asked question is: What is Lady Bird's real name? The answer is Claudia.
O'Bryant, 57, who earns $44,536 as superintendent, said he is not disheartened by federal cutbacks because he has come to believe that people expect too much of their government.
That might seem like an odd sentiment for the person in charge of a park honoring the president who symbolized big government, but O'Bryant is not troubled by the contradiction. "The Great Society was the right thing for that time," he said. "These are different times."
There beats in O'Bryant the heart of a true conservative, without the modern political implications. His mission in life has been to conserve.
At Yosemite he conserved the mountains and lakes; on the Virgin Islands and Padre Island he conserved the shoreline and dunes; in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Johnson City he has been preserving history.