Lake Herman parks employee Gustaf retires after 35 years

SCOTT GUSTAF, park maintenance supervisor at Lake Herman State Park, has retired after 35 years. District Park Manager John Bame said Gustaf made the park what it is today.

Scott Gustaf claims he didn't actually choose his profession. The retired parks maintenance supervisor, who worked at Lake Herman State Park for 35 years, blames his dad.

Gustaf was 16 and his dad was the area youth supervisor for the Green Thumb Youth Program when he began working at the park. For two years in a row, he spent his summers at Lake Herman through the Green Thumb program.

"I always say that's how my career was chosen for me," Gustaf said.

However, the outdoorsman admits he continued working as a seasonal employee until 1987, when he accepted the position he held through five district park managers and more assistant managers than he can remember. He admits he developed a passion for the job.

"It was interesting to me -- learning about all the things and trying to make it better," he said.

His interest and the pleasure he derived from his job were clearly evident, according to District Park Manager John Bame.

"He really made Lake Herman what it is today," Bame said, noting ways in which Gustaf, in a quiet and self-contained manner, simply stepped up to do what needed to be done.

Specifically, Gustaf balanced the needs of park visitors with true care for the natural environment. Bame credits Gustaf not only with helping to cultivate pollinator plots and caring for the native grass but also with tackling buckthorn, an invasive ornamental that can kill native species.

"He saw there was a problem and he took it upon himself to say, `This is what we need to do'," Bame recounted. During the five years Gustaf has been working to address the buckthorn problem, he's made a significant difference, according to Bame.

"Buckthorn is a tedious plant to eliminate," he explained.

Gustaf's passion for his job had him working right up to his final day, which was May 29.

He had things he wanted to get done, he would say when asked to talk about his career. Only when he no longer reported to work would he sit down and reflect on the changes he's seen at the park over the years and on his part, which he did not readily volunteer.

Only when prompted would Gustaf admit that most of the park managers asked his opinion about proposed changes and improvements.

"Being here every day, I see the unique perspective of having people in the park on a daily basis," he explained. That differs from weekend and holiday use.

Prior to working as the maintenance supervisor, Gustaf worked in customer service as a seasonal employee, which helped him to understand what park visitors are seeking. He used the example of the upper campground to illustrate how hands-on experience helped to shape the park.

When he started, Lake Herman had two campgrounds. Only one-third had electricity and campers selected sites on a first-come, first-served basis. The upper campground, in a shelterbelt on the north end of the park, was rarely used and only filled on holiday weekends or during the Steam Threshing Jamboree at Prairie Village. People would leave rather than camp there.

"It was too far away from all the activity and the water," Gustaf explained. "People want to be close to the water, even if they can't get to it."

When camping facilities at Lake Herman were slated for improvement, he advocated abandoning that campground and establishing a second one closer to water. The current site of the upper campground is not only close to the disc golf course and a playground but also allows campers to walk down to the beach.

By moving the campground, park officials created two distinct use areas -- a natural area and a recreation area. Gustaf noted that people often don't differentiate between state parks and state recreation areas, but the two function differently. State parks by definition have historic or natural resource value.

"State parks, by policy -- you're not supposed to develop more than one-third. The rest is supposed to be natural," he explained.

Development at recreation areas is not similarly restricted by policy.

When asked to name three improvements at Lake Herman that he considers significant, Gustaf named the upper campground. He explained that among other benefits, it provides a slightly different experience than the lower campground which is more canopied and protected from the wind. The upper campground is open and has more sunny areas.

The first improvement he named, though, was the beach.

"The beach gets a lot of activity on these days," he said on Thursday afternoon, when temperatures mounted after an unseasonably cool spring.

Creating the current beach took several years. Trees were removed. A restraining wall was constructed. When Lake Herman was dredged, the bay was shaped to have a nice slope rather than a drop-off.

That winter, pea rock was spread over the ice so that it would drop to the bottom during the spring melt and create a nice surface for swimmers rather than a muddy bottom. Sand was spread along the shoreline and continues to be added as needed, supplementing what was already present.

The beach area was completed when a picnic shelter was created by removing the walls of a changing station that had become weathered with age. Not wishing to waste a strong roof, the facility was converted.

The final improvement to Lake Herman that Gustaf listed was construction of the office and visitors center at the entrance to the park. When Gustaf started, the office was located in the shop and seasonal workers registered campers and sold them firewood, making the rounds periodically to ensure everyone paid.

"It made it a lot different for me in the winter because I've been by myself in the shop," he commented.

When he speaks of his years at Lake Herman, he talks about all that he has learned, not only from books and maintenance classes but also through trial and error.

"If you want to learn, you find a way to learn," he said, and he wanted to learn -- about the grasses and trees and birds that create the natural landscape. He also needed to learn about vehicle and equipment maintenance.

But Gustaf also talks about the need to occasionally educate visitors. They don't understand the prairie -- that a controlled burn is necessary for the health of the native species, that a pollinator plot with native forbs is going to look more like a weed patch than a flower garden.

When he makes those observations, his gentle manner indicates he doesn't fault visitors for not knowing these things. After all, he didn't know much about them when he took over park maintenance at age 25. He learned.

In looking back over 35 years, he notes that he's had a good working relationship with all of the district park managers. He also chooses to focus on the positive.

"There have been trials and tribulations, but for the most part, you remember the fun stuff," he said.