by ECW Correspondent Emily Losito
Andrea DeKoter walked into her daughter’s preschool class wearing her National Park Service uniform. The boys and girls looked puzzled as they tried to figure out what kind of police officer she was. DeKoter later overheard a little boy say to his mother, “Mommy, she’s a police officer of the woods.”
DeKoter is the chief of interpretation and education for the Richmond National Battlefield Park and Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, a position that requires her to wear a number of (metaphorical) hats.
“I plan interpretive programs and the parks’ events, do PR for both parks, conduct community outreach and work with partners to promote and develop programming, and oversee our educational offerings,” she explained.
She said one of her goals is to explore what type of experiences visitors want in the parks, and how best to connect those desires with the protection and preservation of park resources.
“I work to ensure that my staff of incredibly talented interpreter-historians have everything they need to be as successful as possible,” she said, “whether that’s making sure they have time to do research to develop programs, finding partners who want to work alongside us, or issuing press releases to let the public know about the great things our parks are doing.”
The Iowa native grew up visiting national parks. As an undergraduate at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, she majored in physics and math. While studying abroad at Oxford University in England as a sophomore, however, she took several history courses and discovered that she had a latent passion for history. When she returned to the US, she changed her major to history and English. Then she went to Binghamton University to earn her Ph.D. in US history with an emphasis on Progressive Era labor history.
It was during her graduate studies that DeKoter began her career with the National Park Service at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY. “That was really my first exposure to public history. I very much appreciated the opportunity to share my passion for history with other, equally passionate people,” she said.
At that time, DeKoter was also teaching history at the State University of New York-Cortland. “I was a seasonal park guide in 2002, and I had just finished my masters,” she said. “I came back again in 2004 after briefly living abroad in 2003. Then I was hired under SCEP, which is ‘Student Career Experience Program.’”
The SCEP program offered students full-time paid positions with the potential to be brought on as permanent employees of the NPS once they completed their degrees.
Prior to serving as chief of interpretation at the Richmond National Battlefield Park and Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, DeKoter worked as a legislative researcher in the NPS Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs office in Washington, DC—an office that consisted of about 10 people—and supported the assistant director for legislative and Congressional affairs. She said she served as a liaison between specialists and Congressional staffers, helped collect legislative histories for Title 54, and provided research assistance for NPS staff and partners, including former Director Bob Stanton. In 2015, DeKoter accepted the offer to become chief of interpretation in Richmond.
“There’s so much I love about my job, and I feel lucky every day,” DeKoter said. “I love the sense of being a part of something much bigger than myself, and having the opportunity to shape how we present history to the public.” she said. “People get up and hope for their dream job, and 99.9 percent of the time I’m excited to go to work. I go home at night and feel like I made a difference.”
She continued, “I think about the fact that the decisions that I make today will have an impact down the road. There’s a strong sense of continuity in the work that we do.” DeKoter feels a connection between her and the people who held her responsibilities and made the decisions she makes.
DeKoter is one of the few women who work in interpretation at the Richmond national parks. “The four front-line rangers at Richmond National Battlefield Park are male,” she said. DeKoter added that she’d never noticed how many men compared to women work at the park, but she did notice it at her first job. “Women’s Rights National Historical Park’s interpretive staff was majority male,” she said. “Quite honestly, I never really thought about it—I had fantastic co-workers there as I do now—but it was pointed out repeatedly by visitors.”
Aware that she’s “in the spotlight,” so to speak, DeKoter understands that puts her in a position to serve as a role model. “I have an enormous responsibility to inspire the next generation to carry on the work that we do in the NPS,” and added, “I hope that girls and boys are inspired by the examples of service they see in the NPS.”
During the National Park Service centennial last year, a temporary mural depicting the Richmond skyline and Maggie L. Walker, an African-American teacher and businesswoman who was known for being the first female bank president, was added at Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site. DeKoter said visitors painted their own pieces along the bottom of the mural and took selfies with it. Betty Reid Soskin, the oldest park ranger in the NPS, and Congressman Donald McEachin have also been photographed in front of the mural.
“It was great to see that interaction and the fusing of art and history. This piece was especially popular with our millennial visitor. They really made the piece interactive, and that’s who we tried so hard to market to.”
DeKoter said there are lots of diverse areas that are part of the parks, such as the Chimborazo Medical Museum, the Civil War Center at Tredegar Iron Works, the Cold Harbor battlefield, Fort Harrison, and the Glendale/Malvern Hill battlefields. “There’s something for everybody to explore, and [the sites] cover a lot of different historical periods,” she said.
She also mentioned the Shelton House, located on the Totopotomoy Creek battlefield. In September, Richmond National Battlefield Park will offer a weekend of activities at the site encompassing 250 years of history. DeKoter explained how the site provides a civilian perspective on the Civil War, as there were women and enslaved African-Americans who lived and worked there, and there are stories of how battles unfolded around them.
DeKoter says every day in Richmond is an adventure—some of them unexpected. She shared the story of a special tour at Cold Harbor last June.
“We were down a couple of staff, and we had about 500 people show up for the candlelight tours commemorating the anniversary of the battle of Cold Harbor. It was a great turnout,” she recounted. “Many of our attendees were elementary and middle-school students; apparently a few teachers had seen the event in the paper and told students they would get extra credit for coming. There were evening candlelight tours and first-person living experiences. I gave one of the tours. Though I was familiar with the history, I’d walked the battlefield only a few times before the tour. There was that moment of nerves before the tour started, and once it began I felt in my element. The rangers and living historians offered an incredible experience that night that did justice to the memories of those who gave their lives in the battle, and I was honored to be a part of it.”
Most of the time, though, she doesn’t get to spend as much time as she used to interacting directly with the public. “That’s something I miss about not being a frontline ranger,” she admitted. “My position is more administrative, and I do miss the interaction with visitors. I don’t get to do that every day…. Being out at Cold Harbor is a great reminder of why we’re here and why we do what we do. It was a chance to refresh my soul.”
She said, “I feel charged with the responsibility to make sure the next generation experiences these places and stories. I hope that others will take up the torch.”