Former National Park Service Director Roger G. Kennedy Passes Away At 85

Former National Park Service Director Roger Kennedy passed away today at age 85.

Roger G. Kennedy, who oversaw the addition of eight units to the National Park System during his tenure as National Park Service director, has died at the age of 85.

Mr. Kennedy, who passed away earlier today, served as director from June 1, 1993, to March 29, 1997. While in office, he made sure that parks mattered to everyone and fulfilled their potential as instructional tools. He shaped and implemented a major restructuring of the Service, yet also defended the National Park System from changes that would have undermined its ability to tell multiple sides of the American story.

“Roger Kennedy was a Renaissance man,” said Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “He led our agency effectively and passionately during a difficult time. Roger made it possible for everyone to have a stake in the national parks, and he made the NPS part of school curriculums throughout the nation. He also had the good sense to anticipate the importance of the Internet and utilized it to make the parks more accessible to everyone. He will be missed by his friends and colleagues.”

President Bill Clinton selected Mr. Kennedy to direct the Park Service. Mr. Kennedy’s background as a historian prompted him to expand the Service’s role in teaching about America’s natural resources, history, and culture – an expansion brought about in part by his insistence that the Park Service reach out beyond the parks through the Internet.

Mr. Kennedy’s almost four-year tenure saw the Park Service restructure its field operations and sharply reduce its central office staffs as part of a government-wide effort to downsize the federal bureaucracy. He refused, however, to let government cutbacks be guided by a non-inclusive definition of history. Mr. Kennedy himself put it bluntly in a 2002 interview when he said, “The impulse to prune back the budgets and get rid of the newer parks…was all code for: ‘Let’s stop paying attention to blacks, Hispanics, women.’”

Mr. Kennedy resisted Congressional efforts to scale back the park system in ways that would have made it less reflective of what he called “the capaciousness of the sense of what the American past is.” He wanted all Americans to care about the parks and knew that if they were to do so, the parks needed to represent all of them.

Eight parks were added to the national park system during Mr. Kennedy’s tenure, including several with ties to African American and American Indian history and culture:

* Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, Oklahoma

* Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas

* Nicodemus National Historic Site, Kansas

* New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, Massachusetts

* Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, Massachusetts

* Cane River Creole National Historical Park, Louisiana

* New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, Louisiana

* Mojave National Preserve, California

In addition, both Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments were expanded and reclassified as National Parks under his watch.

As director, Mr. Kennedy proudly wore his grey and green National Park Service uniform every day. Although the practice was criticized in some circles, he deflected these comments, remarking later, “I felt, and feel to this day, that wearing the uniform of the director of the National Park Service evokes a tradition running back to Stephen Mather and Horace Albright that gives whomever the occupant of the job may be a kind of immediate recognition and authority on the Hill, which is where it counts.”

Mr. Kennedy served as director until the end of President Clinton's first term.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1926, Mr. Kennedy received his BA from Yale University and his law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School. He served in the 1950s as Special Assistant to the U.S. Attorney General, the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, and the U.S. Secretary of Labor.

He was also a White House correspondent for NBC, appearing on his own NBC radio series and in the first NBC television documentaries. Also at NBC, he covered the Supreme Court and worked as a correspondent for Monitor, The Today Show, and other news programs. In the 1970s, he wrote and presented half-hour documentaries for regional PBS stations, and in the 1980s, he was the presenter and writer of two series for the Discovery Channel: Roger Kennedy’s Rediscovering America and The Smithsonian Presents Invention.

During his multi-faceted and highly distinguished career, Mr. Kennedy served as an editor, historian, journalist, banker, and public servant, sitting on boards, commissions, and task forces for six presidents.

He authored 12 books on American history, architectural history, and public affairs, and edited and co-edited many others. He wrote prefaces for each of the 12 volumes of The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America. His most recent book, When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy, was published in 2009.

He was an Honorary Member of the American Institute of Architects. He won the Silver Medal of the NY Film Critics and a variety of scholarly prizes, and was awarded many honorary degrees.