Nancy De Gennaro, The Daily News Journal, April 29, 2016
After nearly four decades with the National Park Service, Stones River National Battlefield’s Chief of Operations Gib Backlund hung up his ranger hat to retire. His official first day of retirement is Monday.
He recently sat down with The Daily News Journal to reflect on his career.
How did you become interested in the National Park Service?
I grew up in a small town, Pipestone, Minn. Pipestone National Monument is there. So I was familiar with the park service and my family vacationed in places like Yellowstone and Glacier (National Forest). … When I started looking for a job, I went and talked to the superintendent at Pipestone National Monument and asked his advice about how to go about it.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s the environmental movement was pretty prominent so the notion of taking care of the environment was in my mind.
How long have you been with the National Park Service?
I started with the National Park Service in 1975 as a seasonal, with some breaks in service. I think I have a total of 38 years. I applied to a bunch of places around the country and I got a job at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Vancouver, Wash. In 1978, I applied for permanent jobs around the country and got one at Cumberland Gap.
How long have you been with Stones River National Battlefield?
I came here in 1992.
What has kept you at the battlefield?
I had no idea I would stay as long as I have. But we were involved with doing a long-term plan for the park. We were acquiring some land and making some big changes. It’s always been a real interesting place to work. There’s always been something going on.
You have seen such an evolution. Can you think about some of the major highlights?
The general management plan we completed in the 1990s led to a lot of the physical changes. We’ve added on to the Visitors Center, we did a new museum, we built a new tour road and the new entrance. Another one we’ve really made strides in … is our outreach to schools. We produce a great Junior Ranger program here.
In the care of natural resources, we’ve been able to make some improvements. That’s really due to a great staff and a huge volunteer core. We have many volunteers. Year before last, people donated 17,000 hours at the battlefield.
You’ve probably worn many hats here. How has your job evolved?
At Stones River my job has remained similar all the way through. You’re better off if you’re a generalist. We work with people, with visitors services with interpreting the story of the park. But we also manage natural resources like the forest and the fields. … But we also manage historical structures like the cemetery, the stone structures, the wall, earthen structures like Fortress Rosecrans.
Work has changed over the years. When I came here in 1992, it was the first time I had a computer at my desk. … Now much of our work happens through electronic means. We communicate with computers as opposed to telephones. How we communicate with visitors is changing. We use Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Many people have contact with us, but never actually come to the park. We still have 300,000 that come to the park each year.
What are you going to do after you retire?
I’m going to do some traveling. I’m involved in some organizations in town. I’m in Rotary, the Stones River Watershed Association, Read To Succeed, Recycle Rutherford. I’m interested in how we take care of the place. I’m on the Historic Zoning Commission with the city. I’d like to travel abroad a bit, too.
What are you going to do with your hat?
Well, I have six of them. I’ll probably keep one.
Will you stay in Murfreesboro?
My wife retired from the parks service just a couple of years ago. She was at a different park. She was superintendent of the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. So we have a house in North Carolina and one here. So we’re talking about what we might do. But I’m going to stick around for a good while.
What will you miss most?
The routine and the people.
What has been the most memorable event or time period at the battlefieldt?
We had that tornado that came through here in 2009 and it devastated 60 acres of the woods and we’re still recovering from that. Because of that the Chinese privet invaded, so that’s created another challenge.
Who is taking over your position?
We’re getting a new superintendent in May, Brenda Waters. That superintendent will have a chance to look things over and see how she wants to organize the staff. I don’t know if my position will be filled.
What’s your favorite ranger program, one you’ve conducted or have seen?
At Mammoth Cave, we had a program called the Wild Cave Tour. That was taking 14 people into the cave with helmets and knee pads and crawling around through passageways and canyons.
Do you have any ghost stories?
There are. If you want to have a ghost story, you can create one. I’ve never encountered one.
What is your favorite battlefield character?
There’s a guy named Ed Abbott, who was from the 4th Indiana Battery. A bullet came through the man in front of him, killing him, and then hit Ed Abbott in the leg and he fell and lay on the battlefield wounded as the Confederate Army swept over that position. He lay there for nine days. Someone came around and helped pack his leg. A group of doctors came around. He begged them not to take his leg off. He was taken to a hospital after 10 to 14 days. Later on he wrote a memoir for a newspaper.
Reach reporter Nancy De Gennaro at 615-278-5148 and follow her on Twitter @DNJMama
About Gib Backlund
Family: Married Connie Hudson Backlund in 1981
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English and humanities from University of Minnesota, master’s degree in history from Middle Tennessee State University
Career: National Park Service sites in Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Washington; Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, Middlesboro, Ky.; Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky; Glacier National Monument, Montana; Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina; Stones River National Battlefield, Murfreesboro; adjunct history instructor at MTSU for three years