(part one of five)
I recently heard Dave Ruth described as “the last of the great, old-guard superintendents.” For more than thirty years, Dave has made Richmond National Battlefield his life’s work, overseeing the park’s growth from 754 acres to just under 4,000.
With stories from the 1862 Peninsula Campaign overlapping with stories from the 1864 Overland Campaign and Bermuda Hundred Campaign—plus stories related to the city’s position as the capital of the Confederacy—Richmond National Battlefield preserves and interprets a complex historical tapestry.
After a distinguished career of more than four decades, Dave retires today—January 2, 2018. During his last weeks on the job, I had the privilege of sitting down with Dave to talk with him about his remarkable run. I’ve lightly edited our conversation for clarity, with Dave’s approval.
CHRIS MACKOWSKI: I know you said you started, once upon a time, at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania under Bob Krick, and then you went to Fort Sumter. Could you just sketch your career out for me a little bit?
DAVE RUTH: During summers in college I was working in a slaughterhouse in Pennsylvania, and participating in reenactments with a fife and drum corps on weekends. At an event, I was approached about participating in a living history program at Chancellorsville portraying a Confederate musician—and it didn’t take but three seconds to figure that working on a kill floor was something I would give up immediately to do Civil War living history! So in June of 1973, I showed up at Chancellorsville and was indoctrinated into a 24/7 experiential living history program, which was really cutting edge interpretation. We felt like we were breaking new ground, and in many ways it is interesting to think back at what we did accomplish.
I worked for several seasons at Fredericksburg, until 1977, in various capacities in maintenance and interpretation. Then in 1977, I transferred to Fort Sumter as a seasonal ranger, and spent a few months there before going to Philadelphia for my first permanent NPS position. My tenure there was short, and my wife has it timed down to the hour—but my memory is that I spent 5 months, 2 weeks, and a couple days working at various sites at Independence park. Then one day I got that call: “We have a job open at Manassas—you interested?” I was on the next moving van south.
Manassas was probably one of my most fun assignments, doing historical interpretation in one of the greatest Civil War parks and working with folks who would become life-long friends. That assignment, which began in 1978 lasted until 1981.
The only thing that could tear me from Manassas was the chance for a promotion, and that came at Fort Sumter where I returned for my second tour as interpretive chief. Working in Charleston and exploring all facets of the siege history was incredibly fun, but another opportunity for advancement came in 1991, which is when I transferred to Richmond, where I’ve been ever since.
CM: So when you made the decision to retire, how’d that feel?
DR: I actually made the decision while walking the fields of Spotsylvania this past fall. I came to the conclusion that I really wanted to do more writing and tours, and the role of superintendent had taken me from what I really enjoyed doing. Life is short, and I really want to engage in more historical scholarship.
CM: Because the job of superintendent is administration.
DR: Well, it’s administration, but it’s also 24/7 management and collaboration. In this park, we work with close to 50 full-time partners, whether they’re in government, the 501(c)(3) world, or land acquisition, and we have a very engaged public. This weekend, for instance, I got a frantic call from a neighbor who wants to sell his property immediately, and it’s very key tract at Cold Harbor. Those calls can’t be ignored. And then it’s the night meetings and special events, sometimes three or four times a week. It is demanding, but there can be an incredible return in your investment. These partners really want to help us get to where we want to go. But it is a drain on your time and energy.
Richmond is like a new start-up park—because of the major expansion—and the superintendent has to be totally committed to nurturing those partnerships. This also includes the governmental side because we have three counties [Chesterfield, Hanover, and Henrico] and also the city of Richmond, all of whom take great interest in what we are up to. It takes an enormous amount of time to sustain positive relationships. I have county supervisors and city councilmen and women on speed dial. Oh yeah, and then there’s the administrative stuff. We won’t get into that! (laughs)
So that trip to Spotsylvania was sort of a trip back in time, to really connect with the resources and stories. I try to get out into the park here, but often to deal with this problem and that problem, and it doesn’t always allow the chance to really connect to the meaning of the resources. That’s what I always loved. It’s why I became part of the National Park Service. But I also realized, when I was stationed at Fort Sumter, that in order to be successful in my career, I needed to move into a managerial role. That’s why I’m in Richmond.
CM: So when you go out into the park today, are you able to look at it as a park or more as, “Here’s this problem we’re having to deal with” or “Here’s that problem we’re dealing with, and here’s this issue”? Or can you go out like you did at Spotsy and be like, “Ahhh, the field . . . .”
DR: There are a few places that I can do that. Malvern Hill is the best example because there are few modern intrusions and it is one of the best-preserved battlefields anywhere. I feel like I can go there and really separate from the challenges of managing it.
Cold Harbor or Gaines’s Mill, both places I find moving, are a different story. I get frustrated because key lands associated with the fighting are still in private ownership. We have some great trails there and try to do the best with what we have, but my impatience really comes out when taking folks around those battlefields. We’re seeing acquisitions happen, but there are still many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that are inaccessible except by permission. Then when we do get property, I probably drive my staff crazy by placing urgency on new trails and parking lots.
One of the things that I never figured out was how to deal with my impatience. I just cannot be comfortable saying, “We acquired it, we achieved our 100% goal,” because unless someone can truly understand these landscapes, then we’ve only been partially successful. So, one of the things we’ve done with the help of this incredible staff is when we’ve gotten these properties, we’ve tried to do something with them as fast as we could in order for people to understand why we’re continuing the work of preservation—not just for the sake of preservation, but for the sake of what the story and the resource represents.
A couple of years ago we acquired a key parcel at Cold Harbor through our great partners, the Richmond Battlefield Associates and the Civil War Trust. Because of the location of this tract, for the first time we could interpret the first day of Cold Harbor. Within a year of acquiring the property, we had a full parking lot, interpretive signs, and a trail taking visitors to where key events occurred. For the first time, people could really get an understanding of what happened there when the battle opened and how it evolved into the fateful day of June 3rd, 1864.
The same thing is true for Gaines’s Mill. Last summer, the Civil War Trust transferred an important tract to us that had the potential to interpret an important episode in that 1862 battle. So once again the maintenance staff designed a parking lot and our chief historian, Bobby Krick, worked with the renowned artist Keith Rocco to produce a paining that shows the Confederate grand attack at the climax of the battle on the 27th of June. (And Keith painted Bobby into the scene!) We hope to have the interpretive node finished in late winter 2018.
That’s also what I think makes the job fun. I still dabble in that world of history and interpretation, at least to some degree.
Dave’s background as a historian has heavily influenced the way he approaches his job as an administrator. We’ll talk more about that tomorrow when my conversation with Dave continues.