By Gordon Anderson

For the last 38 years, San Lee Park hasn’t just been Ranger Steve Godfrey’s job — it’s also been his home.

Godfrey moved into a home on the park property when he took the park ranger job in 1983 so he could be closer in the event that anything came up that he needed to handle.

“I always figured it was good to be here because if anything happened I’d just be a few minutes away, no matter what time of day or night it was,” said Godfrey.

That’s all changing on Jan. 1, when Godfrey will retire with nearly 40 years of service to the county and its largest park.

“It’s bittersweet. I’m going to miss the heck out of it,” said Godfrey, who plans after retirement to help his sister and brother-in-law on their family farm. “It seems like it’s gone by in two years instead of 38.”

Talking to Godfrey about his time at San Lee, he most frequently refers to the part time employees he’s hired over the years, almost all of them high school students taking on their first job.

“It teaches you to respect nature, and how to get along with all different types of people,” he said. “It instills in them that there’s always something to do outside to give back to nature, and a lot of them go on to do really great things.”

The hardest parts of the job — the hours spent cleaning up after Hurricane Fran in 1996, or the tragic discovery of a woman who had committed suicide by jumping into the lake on a winter night — pale in comparison to the best parts, Godfrey said.

“One time in about 1997 or so I was out doing my routine toward the end of the day and I found this little boy near the lake, and he was crying,” he recalled. “I asked him what was wrong, and he said he wanted to fish, but his mom didn’t know how and his dad was with God. So I sat down with him and we fished for about 45 minutes. We caught a few fish and I sent him back up to the campsite to his mom. And they started coming back as regular campers. That got me. That’s the best part. It meant the world to them, and to me.”

Another trying time came in 2014, when the park’s nature center burned after a generator full of gas caught fire during the night. Godfrey, who’d arrived on a Saturday morning in November to open the park for the day, smelled smoke and went for a fire extinguisher.

“I opened the door and the generator blew up,” he said. “The next thing I know, I’m in the hospital, and one of the nurses was a former employee. One of the EMTs was a former employee.”

Godfrey’s hospital stay didn’t last long — he was back at the park the same day, where he was checked in on by County Manager John Crumpton.

“Mr. Crumpton said ‘you’re not going to leave me, are you?’ and I just said ‘no, sir,'” Godfrey explained.

For Crumpton, losing Godfrey means changes for the park itself.

“We know replacing him is not going to be a possibility,” Crumpton said. “It’s hard to find someone that will dedicate their life to any job.”

That means the county is pivoting its strategy to include a day manager and security at night after Godfrey leaves. But his full time presence will be missed for other reasons, Crumpton said.

“The work he’s done out there — the trails he’s helped build, the Boy Scout projects he’s helped with — he’s meant the world to the park and to the Parks and Recreation Department,” Crumpton said. “He just loves that park and he works all the time. But everybody’s got to retire, and he’s definitely earned that right.”

Now that he’s down to his final month in the job, though, Godfrey is reflecting on the things he feels have made his tenure a success. Asked what advice he’d offer to his successor — or to anyone wanting to work at the park at all — he’s quick with an answer.

“Be patient,” he said. “Be tolerant, and be appreciative of the opportunity. Value your employees, and make the most of every chance you get to help someone.”