Ralph White: caring for the James River before it was cool

Retiring after 32 years of service, Ralph White talked about the past, present, and future of the James River Park System.

Ralph White Friday Cheers poster

Ralph White wears purple shorts, blue knee-high socks, and a white beard. It’s typical Ralph White attire.

When he began working at the James River Park System in 1980, White was the only City employee who wore shorts on the job. He received a letter of reprimand as a result–the first of many letters he would collect in his 32-year career. Shorts would not protect him against snake bites and poison ivy, he was warned. He compromised and began wearing tall socks.

He showed superiors photos of Singapore Police Officers and Australian soldiers. “If the cops and the army dress this way, it’s okay for me,” recalled White, 68, speaking this week at Pony Pasture. He smiled and added: “Now I wear them because it’s a fashion statement.”

He has a voice perfect for NPR, but instead of the pale skin earned from a career spent inside a recording booth, White is tanned from the incalculable hours he’s spent outdoors.

In January 2013 he will retire. He’ll leave the James River Park System at a time when a record-high 750,000 people visited its over 550 acres last year. To White and to many others, this growth proves the James River’s significance to the city.

“We used to be just history,” said White about Richmond. “It is not what newcomers associate the city with.” He pointed at the city’s logo on the side of his truck . Running through the center of the emblem is a large wave: the James River. “This is what brands the city,” said White.

That wasn’t always a good thing.

“Keep the boys out of the River”

The James River was a cesspool from World War II to the 1970s. There was also a widespread (although irrational1) fear of poisonous snakes slithering along the river’s shoreline. During the 1950s, the country under Jim Crow laws, whites and blacks had very little in common. But White said there was one thing that unified both in Richmond: they routinely said keep the boys out of the River.

The James River Park system opened in 1972.2 It combined once private properties into a federation of city-run areas along the River.3 Architect Carlton Sturges Abbott, the son of one of the men who designed and built the Blue Ridge Parkway, designed plans for the James River and surrounding areas. The “non-natural, quintessentially urban” plans, as White called them, included Belle Isle office and apartment buildings replete with a fountain and multi-level observation decks. People were to access the island by trams. Much of this was derailed, said White, when newly-elected President Ronald Reagan’s 1980 federal budget initiatives passed. That same year White began his career.

His title was Teacher Naturalist, and most of his initial work consisted of designing and performing educational programs for the public. White was one of 14 employees within the James River Park System. In July 1980, mere months after starting, White was the only employee. He became the de facto manager4, a boss in charge of only himself. “That’s when my job went from teaching to directing.”

White relied on the public to refurbish and maintain a park system that was still loathed and avoided.5 “My job shifted to coordinating volunteers to do clean-up.” Through his tenure, White coordinated residents, churches, and community organizations to revitalize both the James and the surrounding park.

To prove how vital the community has been, White points to a concrete staircase at Pony Pasture, allowing swimmers and paddlers to descend the river bank. The staircase was not funded by the City. Instead it was city residents who raised the $2500 needed to supply the concrete and wood to build it. White said that this partnership is indicative of the support that has turned the James River from a polluted mess into an area now at the center of the Richmond Riverfront Plan. City officials like the Mayor and City Council members now have more financial and political interest in the James. This has created tension between White and the City, and it threatens to dislodge the progress that has been made.

“I’m looked upon as an irritant”

Transformed as a cooperative between White and community volunteers and benefactors, there is an increasing push for the James River Parks System to operate under stricter City control. White was even given two workers to help him. But government bureaucracy and White’s management style have repeatedly clashed. He said one of his most recent letters of reprimand involved his reaction to uncut grass.

At the edge of park property bordering Riverside Drive, White noticed grass as tall as his socks. He cut it and was promptly reprimanded for doing so, told that The Department of Public Works handles mowing on city property.

Some time later, the grass reached his socks again. He contacted the Department of Public Works. They told him it would be weeks before they could get to it. “We look as if we’re doing a crummy job,” said White of the uncut grass. Afraid that the public would find the Park negligent, White put up a sign telling people that mowing was to be done by Public Works, not the Park System. Several people at the City were insulted. White said it was public information.

According to White, process (forms, procedure) matters more than product. “This is a very difficult place for me to be in,” he said. “There is no place for me in a system that doesn’t value product.”

Recent infractions with City policy have given White five letters of reprimand. He claims that there is no other City employee with as many as he has that hasn’t been fired. “I’m looked upon as an irritant,” he said.

White suffers from decreasing vision and equilibrium along with severe arthritic pain (“I live on drugs”). Coupled with his disagreements with the City, White said “I can’t do both. I’m just exhausted.” He said that this is the right time for him to leave the park system. “I have to let it go.”

This Friday, he will be honored in the final installment of the Friday Cheers concert series. “Ralph has been a steward for the river and the riverfront before it was cool,” said Lisa Sims, deputy director of Venture Richmond, creators of the Friday Cheers event. “He’s now often preaching to the converted. That hasn’t always been the case.”

Bands Trampled by Turtles and Goldrush will perform. There will be a Ralph White lookalike contest. Proceeds will go towards the James River Park System.

“What a wonderful recognition it is,” said White. While the event will celebrate White’s service, he does not expect an idle retirement.

He hopes to begin work on a book that outlines his philosophical and managerial approaches to the James River and a collection of anecdotes and experiences from his 32-year career. As one of the last members of his family, he plans to write a history of his family. He would also like to serve on a board that influences development of the City’s canals and flood wall. Others will likely continue to associate White with the James River even after he retires, but not White.

“I think we’ve succeeded” in building a world-class park system, he said. He wants to leave that, and only that, to the future James River stewards. “My shadow, my footprint, can’t be here.”

— ∮∮∮ —

Footnotes

  1. Finding a single death that resulted from a snakebite within the city is very difficult. 
  2. White said that Jesse Reynolds, head of the City’s Parks and Recreation department in the 1970s, was asked to sign paperwork that would create the James River Park System. He responded: “who the hell wants a bunch of weeds and snakes?” 
  3. There are currently 19 sections that comprise the Park System. Most of these are on loan from the Department of Public Works. On July 4th, the Park System will inherit Williams Island, just east of the Huguenot Bridge. 
  4. Despite his organizational role, White is officially titled a Recreation Technician, Level II (“I think I’m authorized to teach tennis,” he joked). 
  5. During his initial teacher role, city officials, including his own boss, refused to visit the Park. There was, as White put it, “such disdain for this place.” 

image design by Jay Frank and Brianna Bevans of Itty Bitty Press

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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