John Debo is Superintendent of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. He talks about the influence of Earth Day and the environmental movement on his decision to seek a job in the National Park Service. He arrived to take a summer job at what was then the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area having never visited. He discusses the state of the park in the 1970s and the work done there in the 1970s-90s. He discusses the Towpath Trail, Environmental Education Center, the formation and early work of the Cuyahoga Valley Association (later CVNPA), how the Ohio and Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor came to be designated by Congress, and connections to the First Ladies Library and James A. Garfield National Historic Site.
Debo, John (interviewee)
Grindell, Karen (interviewer)
Rivers Roads and Rails 2008
"John Debo interview, 23 June 2008" (2008). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 517028.
Transcription sponsored by Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Karen Grindall [00:00:01] Okay. I am interviewing John Debo, who is superintended of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. John, if you can start off by telling us when you were born.
John Debo [00:00:15] I was born in [...] 1949, in Detroit, Michigan.
Karen Grindall [00:00:24] And can you tell us a little bit about where you went to school and some things about you as far as you were growing up?
John Debo [00:00:33] Sure. Well, I was a city kid in Detroit. We lived actually in a number of different locations. My job, my dad's jobs changed fairly frequently when I was a young kid. And so I think I lived in five different houses in the city of Detroit as we kind of migrated through different neighborhoods. And then when I was just finishing fifth grade, my parents finally realized a long-held dream to move south of Detroit to a place called Grosse Isle, which is an island in the Detroit River, a residentially developed island. And this was a dream because my father's family, when he was growing up in the city, had had a summer house on the island, and he always sort of wanted to move back there permanently. So that finally happened in sixth grade. So on Grosse Isle, I went to junior high and high school, spent all of my waking hours in the warm weather months when I wasn't in school out on the Detroit River and eventually all over Lake Erie and up into Lake Huron. And we just sort of took small boats everywhere as kids and also with my parents. So I graduated in 1967 from Grosse Isle High School, went out to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I did my undergraduate work. I had a number of different majors, but ended up with a political science degree, but spent a good deal of time in the School of Natural Resources, got very interested. The first Earth Day was, I think would have been my junior year, 1969, in Ann Arbor. So I got into sort of issues relating to the environment. Went from there for graduate work and received a master's degree at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I was involved in a program called Regional Planning. But I sort of designed my own graduate program called Environmental Policy. So I got a graduate degree from there. I went right to work, was hired by the Massachusetts Department of Natural Resources as a land-use planner, spent about a year and a half with them, left that job and went abroad for about a year, just traveling on my own, came back and was looking for work when I got a call from a faculty person who I had known out in Amherst who asked me what I was doing, and I said, well, I'm looking for work. Just got back, having been away for a year. And he said, well, I'm involved in a very interesting situation at Acadia National Park up in Maine as a consultant with the Park Service. They desperately need help. Would you be interested? Well, that sounded pretty good to me. So I went into Boston and interviewed with the Park Service who had an office in Boston. The superintendent of the park flew down for the interview. Was hired originally on just a short appointment. It was only intended to be a three-month job, and that was 32 years ago, so I spent a career with the National Park Service in various national parks prior to Cuyahoga, all East Coast locations, places like Acadia National Park, Fire Island National Seashore, Lowell National Historical Park, some time in Washington, D.C., down at main Interior, and then back to the Boston National Historical Park and moved to take this position as superintendent of the Cuyahoga Valley, then National Recreation Area, in 1988.
Karen Grindall [00:04:57] So how long have you been in Ohio?
John Debo [00:05:00] It's been twenty years,
Karen Grindall [00:05:01] Twenty years, and you kind of told us what motivated you to become involved with the National Park. Can you elaborate on that a little bit more?
John Debo [00:05:16] Yeah. You know, it's... Life is interesting, has its twists and turns. When I was an undergraduate, like a lot of kids back then, I say kids, college students, working summer in a national park sounded awfully good to me. And as I say, I was interested in the environment because of sort of the burgeoning Earth Day movement and the environmental consciousness. So I thought it would be a good thing to work in a national park. So I applied to the National Park Service for summer jobs in the National Park, and back then you could apply to to national parks only for a summer seasonal appointment. So probably like probably 10,000 other kids, I applied for Yosemite and Yellowstone and got my rejection letter because I'm sure they had just way too many applicants for those locations. If I'd been smart, of course, I would have applied to Zion or an Acadia or some of the little less-known national parks. But in any event, I really didn't think about the National Park Service anymore after that until they called me, in fact, later in graduate school. But I think the other experience that I would point to, which perhaps explains why I am where I am today, is as a kid growing up in the city, we didn't really have much in the way of parks available to us. So we tended to hang out in vacant lots and other sort of unused places in the city. I lived in heavily developed portions of the city, but we, you know, we were always very interested in sort of things natural. We had lots of insect collections, bug collections, butterfly collections. We were always collecting things and spending time, a lot of time outdoors. And I had the good fortune of going up to a summer camp in northern Michigan for a couple of weeks for I think it was seven years. And that really instilled in me as sort of a sense of appreciation and wonder about the natural environment. That was a great experience. So when the time came, when the National Park Service called, I was very receptive to the idea of of working for national parks, which disappointed my mother because she always wanted me to go to law school, and I never fulfilled that dream of hers. But I don't regret for a minute my career path.
Karen Grindall [00:08:12] When you took over as director of Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, can you tell us about the first time that you came to see the park as it was then?
John Debo [00:08:28] Yeah, yeah. I had never been here, although probably, like many people, I had driven over the top a few times on the Ohio Turnpike going back and forth from the East Coast to my family's place back in Detroit. So I had not been here, but I did come out here after accepting the position, and again, it was a situation where I didn't exactly apply for the job. I was first contacted by our Washington office who asked me if I would be interested in this position, and I hadn't really thought about it until that point. But eventually, after sort of working through a process, I did accept the appointment as superintendent. So I came out actually in advance for a house-hunting trip. It was my first visit to the Cuyahoga Valley. And I was literally, you know, sort of dropped out of the sky into a very unknown environment. And I remember being very disoriented by the park and the roadways and not really understanding exactly what I was seeing other than to sort of recognize it was a very beautiful place. The Valley really stood out as this natural oasis in between Cleveland and Akron, and I was very impressed with it. So after just a few days here, three or four or five days, I went back to Massachusetts, got things together, and then eventually moved out here to take this job and started the process of sort of absorbing information about the place. And, of course, all the people I was very warmly received. There was a little community reception down at Hale Farm and Village for me the first week I was here. And of course, in addition to meeting the park staff, you know, fully assembled, that sort of thing. But it was a little overwhelming as I guess, new jobs, all of us are. There's a tremendous amount of information and a tremendous amount of geography to learn, and that took time.
Karen Grindall [00:11:01] So what stage would you consider the park in when you first arrived? Was a lot done? Not much done?
John Debo [00:11:13] Well, you know, that's an interesting question, because in my first week here, I received an invitation from a Cleveland radio personality whose name was Joel Rose. And Joel invited me to come up and do a show and be on the air at sort of primetime radio, which was the 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. hour for an hourlong interview. And I mentioned this to people here and numerous people cautioned me and said, don't do it, don't do it. He's got an ax to grind. And I said, well, that might be, but actually I'd like to do it. So thank you for the forewarning that he'll be approaching this subject of the national park with an attitude. But I did it and it was very interesting because his thesis, which he sort of hammered home again and again and again was nothing has happened. You know, the park was established with great fanfare back in 1974, and it was now 1988, so fourteen years later, and his thesis was nothing has happened, nothing has changed in the Valley other than the National Park Service has come to town, set up offices, and bought land. But he said, you know, there's no park. And that was an interesting observation. Of course I wasn't defensive about that. I said, well, you know, it is what it is. But I know what I'd like to do now is continue the process of putting the parts and pieces of this national park together. And as I said to him and the radio audience, and as I've since said probably 10,000 times, people need to understand that the act of Congress in creating a unit of the national park system, Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, created a piece of paper which said that there is authorized to be established a national park. But the process of actually putting a national park together on the ground is a very long undertaking. And it takes time, money, and an awful lot of work to put the parts and pieces together. So by 1988, I think it's a fair statement that the Park Service had really invested its time and energy in getting the basic administrative structure of a national park staff together. We had put together the office complex where I now work today, those buildings had been rehabilitated, and the office infrastructure was in place, and there were five divisions of the park that had been established. And, of course, a huge amount of time, energy, time and energy had gone into land acquisition. And given the degree to which land acquisition was controversial and highly controversial in the early years of the park, I think that fundamentally sort of absorbed all the energy that was available of the park. So I think it was a fair statement that in 1988 there wasn't much on the ground that had changed, but we were right at the point where we were ready to begin the serious process of developing both the physical facilities and the program infrastructure, which we see now, of course, fully developed today. So in 1988, there was a wonderful opportunity to now get on with the development of the park, if you will. So the first project, the very first project out the door, I recall, was the development of the walkways at Brandywine Falls. And then shortly thereafter, we began planning for the Canal Towpath. And shortly thereafter, we began to think about all of the structures today, which people think of as sort of the critical visitor infrastructure: the Boston store and the Canal Visitor Center, Hunt Farm, the Environmental Education Center. All of these things began to be conceptualized. And since we had incredibly strong funding support from Congress through Congressman Regula, the monies began to flow to put these various parts and pieces together. So it was a very, very busy time that 1988 through arguably probably for a decade, through 1998, we were multitasking with a broad, broad range of development infrastructure projects, putting the basic parts and pieces together, not to mention things like water and sewer and other sort of more basic kinds of things. The other, I would say, serious sort of management challenge in 1988, in addition to the development undertakings, was that just because of the park's history, there were badly fractured relationships with the municipalities, with the fifteen communities involved with the park. And I would say generally a fairly unappreciative public. There certainly was a small core of people who cared about the park and loved the park, and it was reflected in that small organization, the Cuyahoga Valley Association. All of those folks were very dedicated to this park. But I think among the general public, there was just sort of a sense of either unhappiness or sort of lack of attention or care to the national park because it just hadn't really come together yet. So it was clear to me that in spite of the acrimony and the difficulties of the early years of the park under the first two superintendents—and it was not a reflection on them, I don't believe, it was just sort of the nature of the job they had to do—it was a different kind of opportunity for me coming in fresh. And I really worked, really focused on putting together a cordial, collegial, businesslike working relationships with the fifteen municipalities. And more broadly, the general public spent a lot of time out in public speaking engagements and meeting with every in any group I could meet with to sort of carry forward the message of the park and to sort of reestablish—not reestablish, to establish probably for the first time—what I would call good working relationships with the municipalities, the counties, and the other governmental agencies involved. And there were a number of specific steps we took to sort of help that process along. But to fast forward to today, I think it's really one of the great sort of turnaround stories in the national park system from a park that was kind of an ugly duckling and rather unloved in its early years. I think we have now evolved to a very different position where this is actually one of the most loved national parks. And I've worked on a lot of national parks around the country, but we have a very, very strong following of people who care about this park, who love this park. I think our relationships with the municipalities are generally in very good shape. There's still some issues with the village of Peninsula and Boston Township who were the most heavily impacted communities by land acquisition. But even though there might be differences of opinion there, it's a good working relationship with those two communities. So things have changed a lot since the park was established.
Karen Grindall [00:20:20] What would you consider... What other milestones would you consider that you will always cherish and just enjoy?
John Debo [00:20:34] Well, I think, you know, as I think about the twenty years that I have been here, certainly probably the most transformative event was when we cut the ribbon opening the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath in October of 1993. Shortly after I arrived in 1988, we became very focused on the Towpath. It struck me that that was kind of the key to this city, if you will, to opening up Cuyahoga Valley National Park to more general public usage. And it struck me as a beautiful, at that time kind of latent, historical resource that needed our full attention. And it hadn't had that in those early years of the park. So we started immediately planning, designing and constructing. It took us four years for construction seasons to get the Towpath in place for the twenty miles within the National Park from Rockside Road south to Bath Road. But that day, it was a beautiful fall day in Peninsula, and we had a grandstand set up at Lock 29 and the parking area there, and we had, oh gee, a couple of hundred people join us for the ceremonial ribbon cutting of the Towpath. And I think that was really a transformational event for the park. Prior to the Towpath, I think for the public it was very difficult to get a handle on what this park was, where it was. It was a collection of land holdings that were very difficult to visualize, certainly impossible to use from a visitor standpoint. And what the Towpath did was tie it all together north to south, and it allowed people to physically explore the park, aside from, you know, what they could do in their automobiles, which was kind of a confusing way to see the Valley. And it allowed people to make a mental map of the Valley and to begin to sort of, in their own minds, map the geography of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. And it was an instant success. I think park visitation jumped by about 1.5 million people in the first year, and those were Towpath users. So that was definitely probably the project that has had the most definitive impact on the image of the Cuyahoga Valley, I describe the Canal Towpath as sort of the functional equivalent of our Old Faithful. You know, as Old Faithful is to Yellowstone, the Towpath is to Cuyahoga. It's certainly not the only resource in the park with... You know, it's a big landscape with all kinds of beautiful natural and cultural elements. But the Towpath is the icon resource. It's definitely the one which gives the park an image and which most all of our visitors can relate to one way or another. So that was an important milestone, I would say. The opening of the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center in 1994 was an important point. We got serious about environmental education. I know when I arrived, the park was described as having an environmental education program, but it consisted of one temporary employee, great guy named Jeff Maugans, who would host schools on a day basis, sort of fieldtrip basis out in the park, and we called that the Environmental Education Program. And in sitting down with the staff, it became apparent to all of us that that wasn't a credible program. And in a park like Cuyahoga so closely tied in with a major urban area, there was a much greater opportunity for a serious environmental education program. So we conceptualized the, now, 130-bed Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center. We approached the Cuyahoga Valley Association to be our operating partner. I think that that project could have been solely a National Park Service undertaking, but I felt very strongly, as did many on the staff, that we didn't want to do it ourselves. We needed a private partner who could leverage outside resources and bring in community involvement to that program, so that was definitely the right decision. And when we opened those facilities in 1994, they were immediately fully subscribed. And today, I believe we have the finest environmental education program in the national park system at the center. Then in 1996, there was a watershed moment when Congress enacted the Ohio and Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor legislation. This is something that actually had its roots way back in 1998. I vividly recall the first meeting on the subject. I didn't call it. There were a couple guys from Cleveland who had previously had the idea that perhaps the National Park could develop some type of connection into the city of Cleveland. Our legislative boundary was Rockside Road and Rockside is kind of a frustrating location. At the north end of the park, you can stand in the national park and look to see the skyline of Cleveland. It's not that far away, six or seven miles down the river, but it's a long way if it's not connected. So they had the idea that perhaps there could be some type of connection and that immediately spawned a concept. I recall we had eight or nine people around the table in 1988 and the front of our conference room. And we said, well, what would this be? What would it mean? And we came up with the idea of the Ohio and Erie Canal Heritage Corridor. We looked north to Cleveland. We looked south to Akron and down to Canton and decided at that meeting that our sort of project boundaries would be the lakefront in Cleveland to Zoar, Ohio, which was then a distance of 87 miles. That concept subsequently grew to include Dover and New Philadelphia, so it's now 110 miles. But we conceptualized the idea that it would be a great thing if this park, if it wasn't just the twenty miles of Cuyahoga Valley National Park that were preserved as parkland, but the idea that this could be linked following the historic route of the Ohio and Erie Canal and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, north to the lakefront, south to Zoar. And that was a very interesting process. We... It was... We approached it kind of incrementally. I remember at one point, Mr. Regula provided the funding for a staff person who could assist us in that effort. It very quickly became apparent to me this was beyond the amount of time I could give this whole topic, although I think at that point I was probably spending half my time outside the park up in Cleveland, down in Akron, down in Canton, Massillon, and all these communities up and down the line talking to any anybody and everybody that would listen to us about this concept of linking this entire area together. And then eventually, Mr. Regula came forward with funding for a formal, congressionally mandated study called a feasibility study. That study had a positive recommendation that there ought to be federal legislation establishing that area formally as a National Heritage Area. And then, as I indicated in 1996, Mr. Regula was successful in getting that bill through Congress, enacted into law and the Heritage Corridor. I think that was certainly a seminal moment when now Cuyahoga Valley National Park was put in a much broader context of a project that would extend from the lakefront in Cleveland to New Philadelphia 110 miles. It would be connected by three very strong physical linkages, the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, and the federally designated National Scenic Byway, which would connect that entire route. And of course, that has sort of changed the whole nature of the game here. And I just feel so gratified at the success we've had in building a very strong constituency of other interest groups, agencies, other governmental units, and a huge grassroots following, grassroots following of people who are now engaged in that Ohio and Erie Canal, a development effort. And effectively, what we have done is leverage the national park idea from being a twenty-mile concept to this 110-mile concept with all of these management partners to make that happen. So 1996, that was a critical moment then moving forward, I think in 2000, which was the 25th anniversary of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, then Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. I remember having a conversation with the Congressman Regula. We were talking and we had a big event that year at Blossom. We had a dinner for 200 people and a concert which was dedicated to the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. As a matter of fact, we even commissioned the Cleveland Orchestra to do a little special piece that John Williams wrote, which was short, was about a two and a half minute or three minute piece, but it was just that also a fun, beautiful evening. But in the context of that discussion, Mr. Regula, as he often did when we talked, kind of lamented the fact that people in his district, which did not include the park down in Canton, Massillon, down in Stark County. He said, you know, John, they really don't know that there's a national park right up the road in the Cuyahoga Valley. And we to some degree had kind of struggled with that issue even in our own area, people not really understanding there was a national park here. And he said, why is that? Can't you do more, John? Can't you advertise? Can't you market? Can't you do these things? And I said, well, Ralph, you know, yes, we can do all those things, but I'll just offer the opinion that I think probably one of the greatest drawbacks to public comprehension of the fact of a unit of the national park system here is the fact that nowhere in our name is the word national park. We're a National Recreation Area, and it's very difficult to communicate to people what recreation area means. And people confuse it with a recreation center. And they're constantly asking me, well, does that mean we can ride motorbikes and play basketball and, you know, have organized sports? You know, and no, that's not what a recreation area is about. So in any event, I explained that to Mr. Regula, and he stopped and looked at me and he said, you know, I think you're right, so I'll get the name changed, which was interesting because Mr. Regula, of course, was very influential in Congress. It only took him a few weeks to get a piece of legislation through Congress. I know that if we had tried to pursue it through the administration—and I, of course, in the separation of powers as a national park employee, I work for the executive branch—and if I had asked permission to pursue this, it never would have happened. So it came about very suddenly. I recall calling my boss. I am a part of a bureaucracy. I work for a regional director in Omaha, Nebraska, and I called Bill Shank, who was then the regional director, and I said, Bill, I just wanted to let you know, Mr. Regula will tomorrow be introducing legislation for a name change for this unit of the national park system. And his response was, Really? [laughs] But it happened that fast. So overnight almost there was a name change. Took us a little while, of course, to get the name out on all the literature and change the signage and all that sort of thing. But I do think that it was an important moment for this park because those words, national park, instantly gave this park far more recognition and comprehensibility, if you will, than it had ever had as a recreation area. And I don't regret for a moment getting that name changed through. So that was 2000. And, you know, there have been so many other dates along the way that I would say I could touch on, but those I think are probably in my mind sort of the high points of of the twenty years that I've spent in the park in terms of the sort of critical moments in this period of the park's history.
Karen Grindall [00:35:49] You talked about Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association. It this just a normal type of relationship structure in the national parks, or is this unique?
John Debo [00:36:03] Well, it's probably neither normal nor unique. The history of friends groups is quite interesting. And of course, our friends group, the Cuyahoga Valley Association, actually predates the park. CVA, the Cuyahoga Valley Association, was formed right around 1970 as a response to what people began to perceive as the development threat that was facing the Cuyahoga Valley, and the organization formed around the idea of preserving the Cuyahoga Valley. And it became clear that there weren't the local resources or even resources at the state level, financial resources, to fully protect the Valley. So John Seiberling became the most forceful advocate and visionary, if you will, for this concept of preserving the Cuyahoga Valley through federal legislation, which would create a national park. So CVA had its roots as an advocacy organization advocating for protection of the Valley and in the course of the legislative process, advocating for establishment of a national park. It's worth noting, by the way, that Congressman Seiberling was able to enlist all of the Ohio congressional delegation behind the bill, and that included a freshman congressman, Ralph Regula. So Ralph Regula and John Seiberling entered Congress in the same year, 1972, and Mr. Regula immediately was one of those cosigners and sponsors of the eventual bill. So the CVNPA got established as an advocacy organization. Once the national park was established, they continued to function. But I would say that they functioned in a rather quiet way during the '80s. They did have involvement in a little bit of the programing activities, they assisted the park as an 501(c)(3) nonprofit, as a kind of support organization. I think that probably the most significant undertaking was the Cuyahoga Valley Festival, as it was called, had a significant amount of kind of CVA involvement, but that was only three days out of the year. So they functioned kind of in a very modest level of activity and support. When I arrived in 1988, of course, I was immediately introduced to the CVA board, and they were all a wonderful group of people, just sterling individuals who had a very, very strong love for the park. But I think it's fair to say that CVA functioned primarily as a social organization rather than as a business support organization. And what has happened in the last twenty years mirrors what has happened in many units throughout the national park system, where these small groups of local then individuals who've come together and incorporated into 501(c)(3) nonprofit status have evolved from being sort of social support organizations to fully developed and incredibly capable philanthropic support groups, as well as taking on other functions. So CVA, our CVA, began to develop more and more capacity. And I think the critical moment for this friend's group was in 2002 when they merged with the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center, which at that point was its own standalone 501(c)(3). And when those two organizations came together, the CVA went from having one professional staff person, or one and a half I think at that point, to an organization which had twenty-six employees, and the mandate of CVA as it evolved then into CVNPA—there was a name change at that point incorporating sort of the new nice name we had, Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association—their mandate grew way beyond operation of the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center. Their mandate became broadly support of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. So they have over the past six years, I think, very, very rapidly evolved in terms of the sophistication and capacity of that organization to provide support for this park. They provide support in terms of philanthropy, of course, and fundraising. They provide support through advocacy. They have a very strong operational role in the park today. We've assigned facilities to them and they provide services to visitors in this park. So it's developed into really a very important role in support of this park. I would say that in my thirty years, thirty-two years now working in the national park system, I believe it's the single most profound change that I've seen back in 1976 when I started at Acadia National Park, the words friends group and nonprofit. 501(c)(3) associations didn't mean anything to a park manager. They just weren't on the screen. And over those thirty-two years, we've evolved to a point now where park managers, to a very great extent, have participated in the evolution of friends groups and acknowledge that we really can't do our jobs properly without strong citizens-based organizations that stand side by side with the administrative staff of the National Park Service in helping care for, manage, and operate national parks. So although this hasn't happened in every unit of the park system, it's certainly happened in many. I think there are now about 150 friends groups established associated with national parks around the country. And my dream really has been realized. Our Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association has evolved to the point where I think it can be fairly characterized as one of the real high-performance friends groups around the National Park System, so friends groups like the Golden Gate Conservancy, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Association, the Friends of Acadia and others are joined now by CVNPA as a very, very potent group of organizations who are providing vitally needed financial and program support for units of the National Park System. It is the future of the Park Service to have these groups performing at very high levels because the resources, for one thing, the financial resources ju
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