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How Dwight Pitcaithley chronicled "America's best idea"

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   January 2010

A Walk in the Park

NMSU history professor Dwight Pitcaithley looks back on a 30-year career with the National Park Service, including a decade as chief historian for "America's best idea."

By Jeff Berg

Dwight Pitcaithley, in spite of a 30-year career with the federal government, was one of the lucky ones. Now a professor of history at New Mexico State University, Pitcaithley served as chief historian for the National Park Service (NPS) from 1995 to 2005 — a position that might be expected to put him right in the middle of the political games that overwhelm most federal agencies. Although there were politics involved, of course, he says he was able to stay away from most of them.

Park historian
NMSU history professor Dwight Pitcaithley.

He recalls only two incidents where political considerations threaten to take precedence over history while he was with the NPS. One case involved an interpretive panel at Women's Rights National Historic Park in Seneca, NY, when a congressman visited the site and objected to the installation because it cast Ronald Reagan's environmental record in an "unfavorable light."

After reviewing the text, Pitcaithley wrote, "I concluded that while not technically incorrect, the panel was not as prudent as it might have been in assessing Reagan's environmental legacy."

A panel of scholars was formed, an alternative exhibit text was shaped and agreed upon that all found historically and politically acceptable. The change was approved by the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, and installed at the site. Crisis averted.

The second incident occurred when two congressmen complained about an interpretive film at the Lincoln Memorial, which they thought contained too much footage of "liberal" protestors in front of the memorial as compared to that of "conservative" protestors. They wanted footage of anti-abortion and anti-gay rights protestors inserted to counterbalance the scenes containing those marching for pro-choice and gay-rights causes.

After a review, it was discovered that no such footage of conservative marchers existed, primarily because each side had marched in different areas of the Lincoln Memorial: liberals in front, conservatives to the east of the memorial.

Pitcaithley wrote, "The NPS ultimately determined that the historical accuracy of the film would be undermined with the addition of footage taken elsewhere on the (National) Mall."

Despite such occasional dustups, Pitcaithley recalls his time working for Uncle Sam fondly. "I left in 2005 after 30 years with the National Park Service," he says, "pretty much because I'd done everything I'd wanted to do as chief historian. I was burned out, and didn't want to just sit in the chair, and I thought I had affected as much change as I could affect.

"I loved every minute of my time with NPS. Most of the 20,000 employees in the agency have an espirit de corps and work like they are all on a mission. That is not to say that the NPS doesn't have its share of ineffectual managers, but I had supervisors that I respected."

He continues, "I do miss the people and the energy that they have. The environment with the staff was both progressive and supportive; there was sort of a synergy. But I don't miss the travel and cold weather, or the humidity in Washington, DC, in the summer."

Good thing that New Mexico has that "dry heat."

Pitcaithley's move to NMSU and Las Cruces after his retirement from the park service brought his life full circle, since he was born in New Mexico, in Carlsbad, in 1944. After serving in the US Marine Corps for three years, including a stint in Vietnam, he attended Eastern New Mexico University in Clovis and then went on to receive his PhD in history from Texas Tech in Lubbock in 1976.

He started at the bottom of the ladder with the National Park Service, first as a guide at Guadalupe Mountains National Park and also at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. With a minor shrug — no big deal — he says, "I was a guide and cleaned toilets at the caverns."

After three years with the NPS' Southwest Region, Pitcaithley relocated to Boston and served 10 years as regional historian for the NPS' North Atlantic Region. In 1989 he moved to Washington, DC, working first as chief of the NPS' Division of Cultural Resources and then as chief historian.

Throughout his career, Pitcaithley says he was struck by how the NPS' national parks got most of the publicity and attention. Maybe that only sounds logical — it's the National Park Service, after all — but it sells the nationwide system short.

He mentions a segment in last fall's PBS television series by Ken Burns, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" (which KRWG-TV will rebroadcast beginning Jan. 27) as an example: "There was a story of one photographer who so loves the parks that he made it a goal to go to each to get his NPS 'passport' stamped. That's a total of 58 stamps. There was some grumbling among the (NPS) employees because that was not corrected, since it infers that there are only 58. There are 392 sites managed by the NPS. They include the parks, of course, but also national monuments, historical parks and battlefields as well."

Pitcaithley has been to about 225 of the sites.

History quiz for you: How many sites are managed by the NPS in New Mexico? If you got stuck after thinking of Carlsbad Caverns, Gila Cliff Dwellings and White Sands, you only missed 11 more, including the fascinating Capulin Volcano National Monument in the northeast corner of the state and the recently expanded and upgraded Pecos National Monument, just north of Santa Fe.

What's Pitcaithley's favorite of the 392 NPS sites nationwide? "I always refused to answer that question before," he replies. "Bandelier has always been a favorite. I also like the John Adams home in Quincy, Mass. Four generations of the family lived there."

Pitcaithley continues, "In the house there is a portrait of Adams sitting on a sofa holding a cane. The cane is still in the cane rack and the sofa is still there as well. I can go in and know that Adams was sitting on THAT sofa, holding THAT cane."

Still pondering his favorites, Pitcaithley adds, "I also like Lincoln's Birthplace, since it has such a bizarre story."

Briefly, it seems that there is a lack of evidence showing that the log cabin at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in Hodgenville, Ky., is actually THAT log cabin. In his essay, "Becoming a Historian," Pitcaithley says that documentation for the cabin was complete only back to 1895. After several trips to the site, he wrote a paper supporting the findings of Benjamin Davis, who was then the historian of the Hodgenville site. Apparently the cabin was a hoax, built on the land where the Lincoln farm once was, by a huckster named Alfred Dennett. An agent of Dennett had the cabin built, and when approached by a newsman who doubted the claim, the agent, James Bigham, reportedly said, "Lincoln was born in a log cabin, wasn't he? Well, one cabin is as good as another!"

Today the NPS website guide to the Lincoln Birthplace says, "An early 19th century Kentucky cabin symbolizes the one in which Abraham was born." (One is reminded of the relocated movie-set log cabin in Silver City that visitors see at the site where Billy the Kid lived.)

Lincoln controversies live on. Recent news articles have suggested that Honest Abe's birthplace may have actually been in North Carolina (www.bosticlincolncenter.com) and not Kentucky. Other stories have emerged about who was actually Lincoln's father.

During his years with the NPS, Pitcaithley's deep interest in the Civil War — its causes, as opposed to battlefield and tactical history — took root. That interest can be directly linked to an incident while Pitcaithley was still with the NPS.

"In 1933, a decision was made that the NPS would manage Civil War battlefields, and from then until 1995, there was an unwritten policy for park staff and superintendents to not talk about the causes of the Civil War," he relates. "But in 1998, at an NPS superintendents' conference in Nashville, it was decided to change that policy, with the 150th anniversary of the start of the war coming up."


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