Walter McDowney, Park Hero

By Joe Lapp

I want to tell you about one of my personal national park heroes, Walter McDowney. Walter grew up in Kenilworth Courts, the public housing complex just outside the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

When his family moved in around 1960, they thought their new home a palace. Walter loved nature and spent lots of time in the woods near his house – and in the gardens, of course. As he tells it, he tagged along on park tours so often that the rangers said, “You should be giving these tours,” and made sure he got a summer job there.

Walter McDowney shares his love of snakes with Junior Rangers. Photo credit: William Clark for the National Park Service

Walter was a true park protector. By the time Walter was a teen, things were going downhill in Kenilworth Courts, and some of his contemporaries turned to crime. Neighborhood ‘gangs’ started breaking into cars at the aquatic gardens or stealing things from the park. In Kenilworth, it can be dangerous to partner with the police. But that’s what Walter did, helping bring criminals to justice and making the park safer.

Eventually, with the help of a letter-writing campaign from local activist Rhuedine Davis, Walter became a full-time ranger at the gardens. Rhuedine also helped him start a Junior Ranger program, aimed at helping community kids protect rather than trash the park.

I was lucky to be a Junior Ranger under “Ranger Mack,” as he became known. I especially loved the night tours, searching for big bullfrogs with flashlights. And then, every summer, Ranger Mack would take us city kids on camping trips to Shenandoah – trips that opened our minds to the world outside of Kenilworth.

Ranger Mack liked to tell sly jokes as he gave tours. I remember him calling one orange vine “lovevine.” He’d say that, if you threw some over one of your shoulders, the next person you see you’d fall in love with. But, the joke always ended, “I’m not sure if it’s the right or the left shoulder that works.” (Read more about Walter’s humor in the New York Times!)

Walter McDowney with Junior Rangers, Kenilworth neighbors and a fellow park ranger. Photo credit: Archives of Rhuedine Davis

However his jokes and nature knowledge landed with others, it was a hit with kids from the neighborhood. We idolized Ranger Mack, and he was patient with us despite all our untutored roughhousing. His work as a ranger got noticed by others, too, and in 1985 he was the first Black ranger to win the Freeman Tilden award, the park service’s highest national honor.

[Caption: “Walter McDowney with Junior Rangers, Kenilworth neighbors and a fellow park ranger. Photo credit: Archives of Rhuedine Davis”]

Walter went on to serve at parks around the DC region. His career is a model for how community engagement, especially with neighborhood children, can benefit parks and help local residents not only connect with the natural world but find career and life success as well.

For his protection of the park and work with kids, Ranger Mack will always be a hero to me and other former Junior Rangers who experienced his genuine care for us and for nature.


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