'It seems like I was on the gallop all the time'

Times staff writer

Thomas Tucker, former superintendent of Point Loma's Cabrillo National Monument, started working for the National Park Service when he was 18 years old. He retired in 1980 after 18 years at Cabrillo. During his career, he led the Cabrillo monument from being a little-known site with an old lighthouse and abandoned radio shack to a 145-acre monument with more than 1.2 million visitors annually. For his efforts, he was awarded the U.S. Department of the Interior's Gold Meritorious Service Award, the department's highest civilian award, in 1979. He was interviewed by Times staff writer G. Jeanette Avent and photographed by Bruce K. Huff.

I was born in San Diego in 1922, but I left when I was 2 years old with my folks. I was raised in the Sierra Nevadas and fell in love with the out-of-doors. My dad worked in the logging camps in the summer months, and we stayed at the ranch during the winter.

I started in the National Park Service in 1940, working on the 750 miles of hiking and riding trails in Yosemite National Park. In 1941, I worked for a year in logging--felling trees and bucking them up into 16-foot logs. But it seemed like it just wasn't the kind of thing I wanted to do. After three years in the military service and World War II, I went back to the National Park Service.

In 1958, I was promoted to the district park ranger job in the Mather district of Yosemite. The district makes up almost half of the 769,000-acre park. But it became more and more apparent, if I was going to stay in Yosemite, I was going to live there as a bachelor, and my family was going to be down in San Diego. My wife and family were there as outpatients of the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation because they were having a terrible problem with allergies. As it turned out, living close to the water in San Diego would be just about as ideal a spot as we could get.

But, when I ended up moving to the Cabrillo National Monument in January, 1962, I thought I had arrived at the boneyard of the Park Service. We didn't have much of anything at Cabrillo. We had the old Point Loma lighthouse and this little converted World War I concrete radio shack.

The lightkeeper's bedroom was used as the park's bookstore and the basement housed the historian and maintenance person. Our administrative office was in the radio shack. We didn't have a restroom in park headquarters. We had to walk up to the lighthouse. You couldn't drink much coffee, and you had to have strong kidneys to work at park headquarters.

After I had been here a year, Cabrillo Supt. Donald Robinson was promoted to Crater Lake National Park, and I became the superintendent of Cabrillo. One of the biggest challenges we found was not all that many people realized who Juan Cabrillo was or what the park commemorated.

Cabrillo National Monument commemorates the discovery by Western man of what is now the West Coast of the United States by Cabrillo in 1542. But Cabrillo National Monument also has one of the most outstanding harbor scenes of the world, and here you can also see the California gray whale migrate each year.

That was the challenge--to try to keep the tail from wagging the dog. It could be pretty dry to try to educate the visitor about something 400 years after the fact, and try to come up with an interesting and stimulating lesson in history that really gets the public to understand that Cabrillo was the Neil Armstrong of his day.

We came up with the Cabrillo festival in 1964 to commemorate Sept. 28, the day Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay, and claimed the land in the name of Carlos I of Spain. The festival drew representatives from Spain, Portugal, Mexico as well as state and national officials. Cabrillo sailed in the service of Spain but was believed to be Portuguese. The Portuguese felt that the park's program was of such service in calling out the contributions of the Portuguese people that they made me a member of the Order of Prince Henry the Navigator in 1978 to show their appreciation.

One of my most embarrassing moments was at one of our festival banquets. I had just gotten a brand new blue suit because I was going to be a main speaker. I knew there were going to be all kinds of dignitaries there. So I tried this suit on, and everything fit well. I wanted it for that particular night so I could look my Jim Dandy best. When I sat down after making a couple of introductory remarks, I felt the whole seam in the back split. It had only been basted and not stitched. This happened at the beginning of the dinner, and I was very reluctant to get up for anything. After the dinner was a dance. I know I was expected to dance. That was very embarrassing. I just sat there kind of like a wallflower for the evening, paid all kinds of respects and smiled.

But, as much as I enjoyed working for the Park Service, I'm enjoying retirement too. When I was growing up in Mariposa, I had an early-morning date with a milking can at 5:30. And, throughout my career, it seems like I was on the gallop all the time. I enjoy sleeping in for a change. Now I'm occupied with my grandchildren and taking them grunion hunting, to the zoo and the tidal pools.

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