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Suzanne Ditmanson Discusses Life As A National Park Superintendent's Wife
Oh, the places you'll go---as a National Park Service family.
Suzanne Ditmanson, married to Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson, has been part of many communities, large and small, throughout their 33 years of marriage. As Superintendent Ditmanson is about to retire, I was curious about Mrs. Ditmanson's life as a Park Service spouse.
Suzanne Ditmanson describes herself as a fifth-generation Floridian from Osceola County, south of Orlando. "My family were Crackers," she says. Some might take it as a derogatory term for poor, white Southerners, but Suzanne says it with pride.
I would describe her as both a trouper and a trooper--courageous, cooperative, dependable, and flexible with a "can do" attitude.
Suzanne spent her high school years in Charleston, South Carolina, and went to the University of Tennessee, where she studied Parks and Recreation. In 1976, after her first year in college, she worked as a seasonal interpreter at Fort Moultrie (part of Fort Sumter National Monument) in the Revolutionary War Living History Museum. Her role was as a camp follower in General Moultrie's army. Women in the Revolutionary War followed their husbands to cook and wash clothes for their soldiers. She recalls, "In this army, if your husband died, you had three days to find a new husband or you had to leave the army."
How Did you Meet Her Husband?
"The next summer, when I returned to Fort Moultrie as a seasonal, there was this cute new seasonal ranger," she recalls.
Dale Ditmanson, already out of college, was on a nine-month assignment to the park. After a posting to another park, he returned to Fort Sumter in January 1978 as a permanent employee. At this point, Suzanne thought, "maybe we can have a future together."
When Suzanne went to Charleston from UT in Knoxville, she said that she was visiting her parents but she really went to see Dale. They got married after she finished college; Suzanne was 21.
How Did You Picture Your Life As A Park Service Spouse?
"I don't think I thought beyond being in love and marrying Dale."
Their first move was Christmas 1980 when Dale got his next assignment, at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. "I had wanderlust. I looked forward to the adventure of moving to South Dakota," she recalls. "My parents weren't happy; they were going to miss me."
Suzanne and Dale lived in Keystone, South Dakota, in Park Service housing. "The Black Hills reminded me of the Smokies just outside UT in Knoxville. It made me feel at home. We were 20 miles from a grocery store in Rapid City. This is when I learned how to make a detailed list. At the time, Keystone just had a post office that was open three hours a day."
While her husband worked at the national memorial, Suzanne worked as an interpreter at nearby Custer State Park, then as a seasonal employee for the U.S. Forest Service, and as a volunteer in the Senior Center.
"Women took me under their wings and would answer the kind of questions you'd call your mom for. It was expensive to call long distance in those days," Suzanne recalls.
Then Suzanne answered an ad to be a substitute teacher. "They assigned me to a first-grade classroom. I knew then that teaching is what I was meant to be doing."
At the time, she didn't have her teaching credentials. But she has managed to be in a classroom ever since, first as a substitute or assistant teacher, and later as a qualified teacher.
At home, Suzanne and Dale kept an atlas close at hand. "We'd look at the pink sheets of National Park Service job openings. I called them our dream sheets."
After two years, they moved to Canyon De Chelly National Monument in Arizona's Navajo Reservation.
"The Park Service assigned us a three-bedroom, two-bath, unfurnished house. I was a substitute teacher in a middle school and taught all subjects to children who were primarily Navajo speaking. The Navajo are very friendly. We were part of the community and fit right in. We were the only ones without kids when we moved in."
Their first child, Andy, was born when the Ditmansons were at Canyon de Chelly. The community had an Indian Health Center, but it could only be used by American Indians except for emergencies. For her prenatal care, Suzanne drove 100 miles to Gallup, New Mexico. She even had her bathroom stops planned. She delivered Andy at the hospital in Gallup and made that same trip for Andy's routine care. Their first-born was baptized at the Trinity Presbyterian Missionary Church on the reservation.
When Suzanne rattles off the parks they've lived in, it may sound like she just followed Dale from park to park. But she had a lot of input on their moves and made a satisfying experience out of each place. The early moves lasted about two years, the later ones about four years. Most moves resulted in a promotion for Dale.
In 1967, way before Suzanne's time in national parks, at a park superintendents conference in the Southwest Region, the attending wives developed a nationally distributed National Park Service Wives and Women Employees Handbook that included the following guidance:
You are married to a very special man, or you would not be reading this letter. The Park Service challenges men who are intelligent, able to communicate and get along with people, and who also have a special love for our USA wonderlands, the National Park areas. As the wife of such a man, you are also challenged!
The position of women in the Park Service has certainly improved since the 1960s. But if Suzanne was writing this booklet today, she would add, "You can be happy anywhere".
How Did You Deal With The NPS Hierarchy?
"Dale never worked in the big, iconic western parks. In most parks, there was no hierarchy; it's not like the military. We would have cookouts together. Dale mowed the superintendent's lawn when he was away. We'd hang out together. You need to get along with your neighbors. Your park family becomes your first and best friends."
It's a small world. Recently Suzanne and Dale went to Superintendent Martha Bogle's retirement party at Shenandoah National Park. It turns out that Ms. Bogle was Suzanne's Resident Advisor at the University of Tennessee. She also took care of Andy when Alex, their second child, was born.
Now when Suzanne and Dale looked through their dream job sheets, they had to consider their son as well, though Andy wasn't in school yet. They moved to Fossil Butte National Monument in Kemmerer, Wyoming, where, with only three permanent park staff, park housing wasn't available. They bought their first house. "We lost a lot of money when we sold that house," Suzanne said.
When the snow and blowing winds made driving on the highway unsafe, the community closed the gates leading to the roads out of town. They had everything they needed including lots of recreation activities. Here, Suzanne worked as a teacher's assistant.
One winter, Dale left for Law Enforcement School for 10 weeks. In the mornings, she had to shovel snow off their driveway before Andy woke up. "I couldn't have him walking around in the house by himself while I was shoveling outside. Then I had to take him to childcare before going to work."
Suzanne's motto throughout their moves has always been "If you know your neighbors, they'll take care of you."
Sometimes, residents don't understand that they had a national park in their town. When Dale became superintendent at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado, a small park, their neighbors just thought they were a nice young family in town.
Their second son, Alex, was born when they lived in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, their first permanent Eastern location. Suzanne received her teaching credentials and was now able to be a teacher in her own classroom. Her husband worked at the Mather Training Center and they lived across the street from the Training Center.
"Maybe that was a little too close. Once I superglued my finger to one of Alex's toys and ran across the street to tell Dale," Suzanne said.
When Dale went to work at the Northeast Region NPS office in Philadelphia, they moved to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the biggest town they lived in so far.
"We bought a fixer-upper in a subdivision. It was six months before we moved into our bedroom. You always want to settle the kids first." Andy switched high schools when they went to New Jersey.
"It wasn't always smooth with the kids," Suzanne said.
They were angry about having to leave their friends. Because of all the moves, they were closer as a family than others and always made new friends.
"Now our sons will say, 'I'm going to visit my parents,' but they'll never say 'I'm going home,'" she says.
Andy graduated from Cherry Hill High School and was a summer seasonal employee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park before Dale became superintendent. Dale called Andy and told him that he would not be able to work in the park next summer.
"That's how Andy found out about our move," Suzanne said.
At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Ditmansons immediately got involved with the park partners, particularly Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association. They seem to attend every social function, including the Evergreen Ball, the Friends big fundraising event.
"When Suzanne comes to the Evergreen Ball, she can get glamorous in a ball gown and looks fabulous. But she's an active person. She can tackle a strenuous 11-mile hike on the Shuckstack Tower loop just as easily. In every situation, my favorite thing about Suzanne is that she's down to earth. You get the same Suzanne whether she's wearing a gown or hiking boots," says Holly Scott of Friends of the Smokies.
"We chose to be social," Suzanne emphasizes. "It's very easy in Gatlinburg. People in the surrounding communities feel the Smokies is their park. In some Western parks, communities came after the park and there's little relationship between the park and community."
Until a couple of years ago, Suzanne was an elementary school teacher in Gatlinburg, a tight-knit community of 3,500 people.
"Everyone knows us. When we came to Gatlinburg, Andy was already in college. It was a huge adjustment for Alex. He wasn't anonymous anymore. It didn't make him behave any better. If Alex got into trouble, we heard about it before he got home."
We told the rangers, "If Alex speeds in the park, you make sure to give him a ticket."
Do You Travel To Other Natioal Parks On Vacation?
"Our vacations were always in national parks. Our lifestyle influenced our kids. Andy got engaged in Shenandoah. He and Jen got married overlooking the Smokies. They value and love the national parks."
Park Service kids have special, unique experiences. The sons developed a sense of pride in their father's accomplishments. Andy is a program analyst for USAID in Washington, DC and Alex is a nurse in the East Tennessee Children's Hospital
Now That You've Retired And Dale Is About To, What's Next?
"We want to learn how to play golf, camp in the park and travel. We can't intrude on the new superintendent, but it's going to be hard for us. We have no real plans at this time."
"I'm as busy as I want to be. I've been a part of Experience Your Smokies. I help pack food bags at the school. I try to hike every week and read a lot. In addition, we're going to be grandparents."
"I thank God every day I get to live here. However, we can be happy everywhere."