JENNIFER JACKSON’S PORT TOWNSEND NEIGHBOR: Admirers say goodbye to an Old Fort Townsend park fixture

TO CAMPERS AND Cub Scouts, hikers and naturalists, he was a fixture of the landscape at Fort Townsend State Park — a tall, solid figure in the green parks uniform jacket, shirt and pants, standing quietly on the sidelines.

If there was a problem, he resolved it. If something needed doing, he did it.

Last Friday, volunteers, park commissioners, co-workers and friends gathered at the new pole barn at Fort Townsend State Park to say goodbye to Robert Wiggins, resident ranger for more than 15 years.

Hosted by Friends of Fort Townsend State Park, the party gave people the chance to thank Wiggins for what he had done to put the park on the map.

“He worked at this park and took on projects, overcoming many odds to complete them,” said Ken Pastore, an active supporter of the park. “He never gave up.”

Wiggins, 48, is taking early retirement and moving to Wisconsin, where his wife, Sharon Wiggins, moved to take a job two years ago.

Robert stayed behind, according to Nancy Steinberg, Friends of FTSP president, because the fate of the state park was up in the air.

“He felt such a passion for it that he wanted to stay,” Steinberg said. “He had a commitment and wanted to see it through.”

The Wiggins’ older daughter, Audi, 19, is attending the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, and her sister, Erin, 17, is a junior in high school there.

Both girls were young when the family moved to Port Townsend in 1995 and took up residence in the house on the park’s heavily wooded grounds.

Wiggins, who had served in the Navy, was working at a state park in South Carolina when he interviewed for the job in the opposite corner of the country.

“Jack Hartt said, ‘Come on up,'” Wiggins said, referring to then-head ranger at Fort Worden State Park, which oversees “Old Fort,” as Fort Townsend State Park was commonly called.

Barbara Pastore, who walks the trails four days a week, said that before Wiggins came, Fort Townsend State Park was considered to be an overflow campground for Fort Worden.

But through Wiggins’ enthusiasm and persistence, the park grew out of Fort Worden’s shadow, volunteers said.

Pastore said she and her husband remember Wiggins chopping logs to build the amphitheater overlooking the water, where he held story nights and singalongs around the campfire.

Wiggins also initiated programs and invited groups to hold events that have become traditions, Pastore said, including historic re-enactors who bring the military history of the mid-19th-century fort to life.

The park also became known for native plants unique to the area that people didn’t even know were there, she said.

And it’s a lot easier to navigate.

“I used to be constantly rescuing lost hikers,” Pastore said. “Then, he put in the trail sign system. It’s just one of the things he did to make this a jewel of a park.”

As supervisor of the Youth Conservation Corps, Wiggins set people on career paths and taught them job skills, said Karl Fisch, Fort Worden State Park ranger.

Wiggins also inspired an interest in nature through trail walks and junior ranger programs.

Rolf Schumann attended the party to thank Wiggins for his support of local Cub Scouts, who hold an annual day camp at the park in the summer.

Based at the picnic shelter near the waterfront, the camp features BB gun and archery ranges, flag ceremonies at the amphitheater and games on the parade ground.

“He made that week really special for the kids,” Schumann said.

Lucy Hladecek, a member of Friends of FTSP, said Wiggins was a good mentor and teacher for the volunteers who help maintain the park and trails.

Roger Schmitt, a State Parks commissioner, said that when state parks are described as “premiere destinations of uncommon quality,” people usually think of the grounds or facilities, but it also describes the quality of the people who work there.

‘Uncommon quality’

“I think you represent the uncommon quality,” Schmitt said of Wiggins.

Fisch, who will take over as FTSP ranger, presented Wiggins with a plaque on behalf of park staff.

It was engraved “To Robert S. Wiggins, for 15 years of selfless service to Fort Townsend State Park.”

“I looked into wording on plaques, and a lot of them used the word ‘dedicated,'” Fisch said. “But dedicated doesn’t even begin to describe Robert.”

Steve Ballou, a FWSP staff member who has known Wiggins for 12-plus years, called him a kind, caring man who mentored young people whom no one else would take on.

Larry Stevens, Fort Townsend’s resident ranger from 1971 to 1979, commended Wiggins for promoting the park better than anyone else had.

Others ribbed Wiggins, including Fred Weinmann, who asked, “Who are we going to complain to?” and Eric Hendricks, ranger at Dosewallips State Park, who said that now that Wiggins was leaving, he was free to raid Wiggins’ tool shed.

Joannie Hendricks recalled something that Jim Farmer said when he retired as head of Fort Worden State Park.

“You know you’ve done well when you leave your park and you see all the changes you’ve wrought,” Joannie Hendricks said.

Others told stories about how Wiggins dealt with problems.

On learning that some people were illegally cutting salal in the park, Wiggins arranged for them to get a permit to do so legally, Pastore said.

But he was no pushover.

Helen Vogel, a park volunteer, told a story about two motorcycle riders who were creating noise during an event.

“They ended up walking their bikes all the way out to the highway,” she said.

When asked what direction his life is taking, Wiggins said that for the next six months, he is going to “just fish.”

Then he’s going to go back to school, either in health care or education.

Ken Pastore said it was a great satisfaction to watch Wiggins since he was a young man and see him succeed in something he really cared about.

“We look at him as a son, and we’re proud of him,” Ken Pastore said. “There are going to be other successes in his life. We’re going to be behind him all the way.”

Wiggins, who planned to leave Port Townsend on Tuesday morning to drive to Wisconsin, wanted to leave “by the back door,” Steinberg said, meaning without fanfare.

But the Friends of FTSP thought differently, organizing the party and e-mailing invitations.

Among the things Wiggins took with him are the giant trowel that Steinberg presented to him on behalf of the Friends of FTSP, a memento of the masonry work he did on the stone fireplace and the walkway for the pole barn.

“I wouldn’t have been here as long as I was without all of you,” Wiggins said. “I thank you personally for this building, for everything else you’ve done around the park and for all you have done for me, Washington State Parks and the community.”

Guests also had the opportunity to sign a memory book and contribute to “Robert’s Rainy (Snowy) Day Fund” in a small can on the back of a toy John Deere tractor.

Vogel, who attended the party with her husband, Anton Vogel, a former FTSP board member, said it all when she wrote: “Tony and I will miss seeing you at the park.”

“Robert was always there,” she said.

________

Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688, or e-mail jjackson@olypen.com.

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