- Scott Elmquist
- Ralph White, standing atop Dead Rock at Belle Isle where the Grateful Dead partied after a concert in the 1970s, worries about the river park's future.
Ralph White is inches away from getting fired.
His annual performance reviews routinely rate his work as slightly below average. His superior slapped him with five letters of reprimand in the last 10 months alone. He has been told that during the course of his 32-year-career as director of the James River Park System, he's racked up more disciplinary actions than any city employee. Measured by his personnel file, White may be the worst employee in the city's history.
But this isn't why the white-bearded 68-year-old is pushing a broom around the stainless-steel toilets of the men's bathroom at Pony Pasture Rapids at 8 o'clock on a rainy November evening. It's a task White has taken on voluntarily and energetically despite being repeatedly told by his bosses that his standards are too high and his focus on perfection is getting in the way of his administrative duties. White won't compromise. To him, making sure the odd morning bird watcher has a clean bathroom is just one of the little details that make the park the celebrated gem that it is.
So every night the worst employee in the city cleans the bathrooms. He piles dust in the middle of the floor with a precision that only comes from having repeated a task hundreds of times. It's a monotonous, repetitive act that almost masks the burden that White carries as the park's obsessive gatekeeper.
Despite the disdain White elicits at City Hall, he's generally credited with transforming what was a beer-can littered hotbed of crime into one of the city's best assets — a gorgeous natural centerpiece that every year plays host to several hundred thousand picnicking families, rock-hopping youths and thrill-seeking kayakers.
Under White's stewardship the park has won national recognition, most recently on the cover of Outside magazine, which this year held a contest that named Richmond the best river town in America. He has personally won dozens of commendations through the years — from national groups, the governor, you name it. Most recently, the Valentine Richmond History Center named him a Richmond History Maker for rescuing a "once lacking urban park." Mayor Dwight Jones made the river a focal point in his campaign for re-election, promising to leverage the James as a key economic and tourist draw.
"It is ironic that I would be recognized doing all this good stuff yet be barely employable," White says.
This isn't hyperbole. White's employment with the city is marked by a persistent battle with departmental bureaucracy. Permits, committee approval, work-order requests: In White's view, they are obstacles to be sidestepped. If a group of boaters decides an area needs a new access ramp and White thinks it will make the park a better place, he rallies volunteers, solicits donations and has one installed before the season ends. He asks for permission later. It gets him in trouble, but White says the park wouldn't be what it is if he'd stuck to protocol and his meager operational budget of $35,000 a year.
"The continual harping over processing work orders, the complete lack of support for the things I think are important, and the continual criticism of being iconoclastic ... day after week after month, counseling being brought in, letters of reprimand — it's just weighty," White says. He speaks in a rhythmic cadence that conveys authority and confidence. "I'm tired of fighting."
On the advice of his wife, Cricket, he has decided to retire before he gets himself fired once and for all and loses his pension. His last day is Friday, Dec. 21. White dedicated three decades to the park and has no faith in the city to maintain what is essentially his life's work. In the wrong hands, White says, the park could go to hell in three months, if that.
"So, I'm a little down right now," says White, leaning on his push broom in the Pony Pasture bathroom. He's wearing his customary winter attire — a tweed jacket, leather vest and a navy-blue Greek fisherman's cap. "This is on my mind. I fear that there will be a new approach and that it will be more autocratic, more administrative, and more mechanical. ... And my fear is that they'll simply change priorities and lower the standard. ... I think our record of success may just be totally ignored."
- Scott Elmquist
- It's the little things, including the eastern box turtle, that have defined Ralph White's 32-year career managing the James River Park System.
The James River Park System is more than 550 acres of rocks, rapids, islands, meadows and forests that cut from the quiet outskirts of Richmond through the dense city center. White came here in 1978. He was 34 and chasing a girl. He ended up taking a seasonal job cutting trails in a city park. He says he broke it off with the girl, who wanted children, when he realized he'd never be a good father. "I decided my true love was the park," he says.
White was born in Brooklyn but went to high school in the Philippines while his father worked for the foreign service. White opted to go to college in Thailand, a country he was introduced to on a trip with his dad, and later joined the Peace Corps and served 54 months in that country. Before coming to Richmond, he was working seasonally across the country as a forest ranger.
White took a full-time job with the city in 1980. The next year he was left as the park's only full-time employee after a round of drastic cuts to the park budget. At the time he had an annual budget of $3,000. By all accounts, the park was a miserable place: The river was horribly polluted, and biker gangs, prostitutes and drug dealers loitered in the parking lots.
Hired to serve as a naturalist, White had difficulty convincing public school groups to come down to the park for the interpretative tours he offered. When students did come, things didn't always go well. White still vividly recalls leading a group of young, black students on a tour, only to turn a corner and find racist graffiti scrawled on an entrance tower leading to the rocks where he was going to explain the geology of the river. He describes the experience as a seminal moment in his career: Feeling like he had an emergency on his hands, he called park maintenance to come remove the graffiti and was told it would be at least two weeks — maybe three — before they could get to it.
"I realized that no one in city government was going to help, and having high standards was not part of the system," White says. "It was all right to wait two to three weeks with this stuff and that was just overwhelming. I wanted this to be a great place and nobody else seemed to care."
White spent the rest of the day scrubbing the rocks with steel wool and caustic chemicals. It was the beginning of the park's turnaround — his decision to take matters into his own hands.
- Ralph White has never been shy with the media. He's appeared in Style on multiple occasions, here in May 1986.
White didn't exile the bikers and prostitutes by himself. He enlisted the park's users to help him turn the place into a resource the community was proud of and would use. It was the volunteers who first picked up the three dump-truck loads of beer cans and trash that had accumulated at the Pony Pasture parking lot. Eagle Scouts built and installed all of the park's trash cans and recycling bins. Cyclists planned and cut the mountain bike trail that runs along the north bank of the river.
John Zeugner, 60, past president of the Falls of the James Group of the Sierra Club, says White's greatest contribution is leadership and vision. But the park would be nothing without the mishmash of volunteer groups and advocacy organizations that White rallies around the cause, he says.
"It's kind of like Ralph and this army of volunteers who are more than willing to build a new canoe takeout or new steps or a screen for two bathrooms or a changing room here and there," says Zeugner, who worked with White for 15 years. "Where could you find 50 city folks to help Ralph out with a major cleanup of things like that? Or turning the slave trail into a real spiritually moving experience? It's the people who share his vision and are willing to give their time because they want the James River Park to be a real legacy for future generations."
White's vision for the park is straightforward: He wants its users to feel connected to it so they have a stake in making it a better place — or at least leaving it in as good a condition as they found it. "The idea is that they get turned on to nature and love it and care for it," he says. That's one of the reasons he peppered the park with interpretative signs — placards that explain, in White's words, "What the hell is that?" Why, for example, is there a Z-shaped dam jutting off Williams Island? The sign explains: It funnels water around the island to an out-of-sight water treatment plant. What is the significance of this trenched meadow on Belle Isle? It was the site of one of the Confederacy's deadliest prisoner of war camps during the Civil War.
"When you know these things, you have a sense of what it means to be a Richmonder," White says. "And once you know, you can become a spokesperson for the city and the park, and you can tell other people about it."
White's deliberate exercises in community building around the park are inspired by his four and a half years serving in the Peace Corps. During his service in Thailand, he set up a nature center that aimed to reconnect residents to their natural surroundings. He says it worked. "When the community is cut off from nature ... it falls apart, and conversely, when people are interactive, taking responsibility for the natural history resource, they become caring," he says. "And that is what happened here."
White's longtime friend Greg Velzy, a parks worker and kayak instructor in Chesterfield County, sees the impact of White's experience abroad in the work that he does in Richmond. "He was exposed to some places that had a very strong, profound effect on him," Velzy says. "I think that drives him to try to create a similar setting for the populace here."
There's another aspect of White's drive, however, that's more difficult to explain or trace back to a specific experience or moment in his life. White's wife says it's just the way he is: "He just wants to make the world a better place, period. ... I am a glass-is-always-half-full person. That's who I am. Ralph is: 'Hmm, it's not really a good-looking glass — what are we going to do about that?'"
- Ralph White at Reedy Creek in a photo from Style Weekly, June 1999.
White's ceaseless capacity to improve and perfect — and his willingness to bypass the established bureaucratic order to do so — is what's landed him in trouble through the years. By all accounts, White has been tangling with city administrators since he was hired 32 years ago.
Officials with the city parks department didn't respond to a request for an interview by press time, but White's tangles with City Hall are well documented. They typically go something like this: White does something he thinks is best for the park regardless of what his bosses or some miscellaneous city commission wants him to do. In February, for example, he decided to get a trailer repaired even though parks operation manager Mary Lois Mitchum told him not to, according to the reprimand she lodged against him in March.
"Not only did you authorize the trailer's repair, you failed to obtain a purchase order," reads her complaint, which goes on to threaten White with the possibility of dismissal if he violates city procedure again. All five of the reprimands White has received this year threaten dismissal.
White is unrepentant. He says the $700 he spent to fix the trailer came from a private donation, cost the city nothing and, in fact, saved taxpayers the $6,000 that would otherwise have been spent on a new trailer. In other words: It was the right call.
Not everyone is charmed by White's insubordination. James St. Pierre headed up the park's facilities maintenance department between 1967 and 1997. The two nearly came to blows in the late 1980s after White cut down a section of chain-link fence so canoeists could portage cross the railroad tracks. St. Pierre fixed the fence. White came back and cut it down again.
"We had cussed at each other and I didn't think too much of him because he did things the way he wanted to do them and there were not laws, regulations, rules or anything else that he had to abide by," St. Pierre says. "Tree huggers don't see anything but their own point of view."
White's most highly publicized battle with department heads came in 2004. It was over a gate. The short version is that White's bosses decided they wanted the entrance to the parking area at Pony Pasture opened and closed every night. They were not willing to provide additional staffing or overtime to cover the cost of doing so.
Not only did White think it was a stupid idea to close the gate every night, he didn't particularly want to work the unpaid overtime to make it happen. "It was a needless irritation for park users," he says. "Shouldn't you be able to walk with your kids and listen to the spring frogs? Shouldn't you be able to watch the owls? Shouldn't you be able to go firefly viewing or canoe in the moonlight?"
When he found an employee from another park had locked the gate, he came up with a solution. "I just took a bastard lock nobody else had the key to and I locked the sucker open," he says.
White was suspended for three weeks. As a condition of his eventual re-employment, he's still required to shut the gate nightly without overtime pay, he says.
The director of parks at the time was Dinesh Tiwari, who left Richmond for a job in Northern Virginia in 2005. Despite the headaches, Tiwari has nothing but good things to say about his former employee's stewardship of the park.
"You can't help but really admire the guy and really appreciate his genuine concern and genuine commitment to doing the right thing for the environment and for the resources and for the good for the community in the long run," Tiwari says.
- Scott Elmquist
- White's disdain for bureaucratic protocol is legendary: When his superiors demanded he lock the gates shut at Pony Pasture at night, he instead locked them open.
White hated Richmond when he first moved here. There was rampant racism. People threw beer cans at him when he rode his bike. Now he believes the city is in the middle of a revolution. "We've gone from being the city of the Confederacy — the James was once the fifth filthiest river in the country," he says. "Now we are strong, healthy people of the river. ... People get married by the river now.
"The rest of the world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but we in Richmond are doing just fine."
Still, White can't shake his deep pessimism about the park's future. He worries that the momentum he initiated isn't going to last long after he retires — and if the way he describes the parks department's priorities is at all accurate, he has legitimate reason for concern. White says he has been told by his superiors to aim for mediocrity.
"My supervisor said it didn't matter if litter got picked up or graffiti got covered — my highest priority was the [administrative reporting system] and purchase order requests," he says. "That, for me, was the final straw."
White acknowledges that it's going to be nearly impossible for him to sit back and watch someone else take over management of the park. He says he'll still be active on various community advisory boards. But he has vowed not to interfere with his successor. That doesn't mean he isn't doing everything he can for the park before he retires.
On a recent afternoon he releases 200 fish he bought from a hatchery in West Virginia using money the park raised by recycling aluminum cans. White hopes that the crappie, bluegill, minnows and largemouth bass will be the start of a sustainable population.
The fish are in four large plastic bags. He carefully empties them into the water. The tiny fish linger in the vegetation along the edge of the pool. He watches, a little disappointed. "Come on stupid fish, you're in a school — hide yourselves!"
The fish slowly disperse into the murky water. White looks up and smiles. "In two years," he says, "I'll be gone. But I hope you can come down and catch a fish." S------
On the eve of his retirement, Ralph White offers a tour of Belle Isle and discusses his work on the James River Park System in a video feature by Briget Ganske.