By Mary Ellen Thompson | J.W. Weatherford, the Park Manager at Hunting Island State Park, has a way of looking at life that is all encompassing. His imagined life trajectory didn’t land him in this career, but he couldn’t be more perfect for it, for our beloved park, and for South Carolina’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
Last year, Daniel Gambrell, the former Park Manager was promoted to a position in Columbia and when JW applied for his job, the Hunting Island State Park was well on its way to recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Matthew due to all the tireless efforts of Daniel and his associates and the work of volunteers with Friends of Hunting Island. By the time JW arrived at Hunting Island, the park was again closed due to that nasty little storm named, Irma. The combined effects of both storms had the campground closed to visitors for fourteen out of twenty-one months, and the beach access for 10 months.
Raised in Gaffney SC, JW was an athletic child who played baseball, basketball and football. He wasn’t an outdoorsy child per se; didn’t climb trees, go camping, or have any aspirations of raising a family inside the boundaries of a park. His father was a defense attorney, his grandfather was a state senator, a state representative, an attorney and a circuit court judge. JW saw the bench as his preferred seat; he didn’t want to be an attorney, he wanted to be a judge. When he attended North Greenville University, he majored in history which seemed to be a good stepping stone for law school. By the time JW was a senior, he had had enough of school. Wondering, then, what he was going to do with a history major, he got a job working at a South Carolina Welcome Center near Charlotte NC.
He quickly realized that visitors loved asking for directions and having a handsome young man reply in a southern drawl. He, in turn, enjoyed telling visitors how to take the scenic back roads,” JW said. “I got to market South Carolina to visitors, give directions along the back roads and describe how to enjoy the beautiful local flavors along the way. It was a neat job – I got to engage with people every day. Then my boss told me I’d be good as a park ranger; I never would have thought of it myself. We got emails listing the jobs available so I applied, got my first job in a park, and loved it!”
JW is one of the few park managers in South Carolina to have worked in all four regions of parks.
In South Carolina we have 47 state parks and the regions are: mountains, sand hills, coast, and lakes. He explains that each region, as well as each park, has it’s own personality and challenges.
“You have to manage each state park differently depending on the resources of the park. My first year was at Croft State Park where I learned the basics of park maintenance, and where I learned how to manage people. That park has trails used by mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians. Each one of those groups thinks the trails are for their particular use and the other users are in their way. Then I went to Sesquicentennial State Park which is an urban island – it’s 1454 acres completely surrounded by the city of Columbia. There is a dog park there, and the track team at an adjacent school practiced in the park. It was neat to work with groups of people that are not your normal park users.”
“Next I went to Huntington Beach State Park where I was the Assistant Manager for five years. That was where I decided I wanted to manage a coastal park. After Huntington Beach, I was the Park Manager at Lake Wateree State Park for a year and a half until this job became available.”
“Hunting Island is the top echelon park in the state. It was an honor to be offered the position of Park Manager for Hunting Island, and nobody is going to out passion me or work harder.”
“As soon as I got here, I fell in love with it. With the magic of it. Managing Hunting Island is a fun ride, you go where the tracks take you and you’re just a passenger on the train.”
JW must have wondered what sort of train ride he had signed up for in his first four months.
“When I got here, the park was closed; it was October 2, 2017 and at 10:00 a.m. I arrived with a moving truck, two children, and a wife who was six months pregnant.”
“At 6 p.m. I had to go to a public hearing about beach renourishment and after the meeting I had dinner with people from Friends of Hunting Island. On October 12, we opened North Beach. On Thanksgiving we opened the trails, and on January 1 we opened the parking lots and the beach at South Beach. On February 1 we opened the campground – 2 p.m. is check in time but at 7 a.m. there was someone parked at the gate waiting to get in. We had lost 88 camp sites and three bathrooms, all of the ocean-side campsites were gone. On February 2, my third child was born.”
For the months that the park was closed to visitors, and the time that the campground was closed, JW says the strangest part, for himself and the other park employees, was the lack of campers. “Our senses are used to hearing children squealing, smelling campfires burning. We all felt something was missing.”
Now that almost all systems are a go at the park, even though some of them are still limited, JW can concentrate his efforts on what he describes as the two most essential elements of his job: being a steward of the park, and delivering quality customer service.
JW is an accessible steward of the park. When he’s out and about he hopes people will recognize him and speak to him. He also welcomes involvement with the community. “It’s important for the park and the park manager to be a part of the community. I like public speaking, I like being involved.”
When asked about Friends of Hunting Island and their involvement with the park, JW is almost overwhelmed. “Other parks don’t have groups like this! There are about 1500 members. Other parks have friends groups but maybe with 200 or so members.” He explains that FOHI started in the 90‘s when “Ray Stevens, who was Park Manager, roped two visitors into walking the beach looking for evidence of sea turtles.”
What are the current plans for the continued restoration of the park?
“Beach renourishment, and when they get the reimbursement from FEMA, the roads will all be paved. The beach renourishment will start this fall and encompass 1.8 miles from the campground to South Beach with 1.3 million cubic yards of sand being pumped in from a sandbar out in the ocean. The beach will only be closed in sections as the renourishment is being done. Longer range plans are to repair the fishing pier and eventually build more cabins.”
Does JW think this area will remain home for his family?
“We thought we’d retire to Greenville but we’re reconsidering Beaufort and it’s a plus that I have an aunt, uncle, and cousins here.” Meanwhile, JW loves Beaufort, the people, the beach, the lowcountry, and of course, the all the history that is inherent here; “Everything has a history,” he says.
JW Weatherford is bound to become an important part of our history here in Beaufort and out on Hunting Island.