National Park Service
Person of the Month


This article first appeared in the Vol. 4 No. 8 (August 1981) edition of the Courier.

Doc Ruhle, 50 years plus

By Diane L. Sedore
Editorial Assistant
Office of Public Affairs, WASO

A Bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and a Ph.D. in what is now known as nuclear physics seems like an unlikely beginning for a 50-year Park Service career but not so for George "Doc" Ruhle. A frequent visitor to the national parks, Doc's interest in parks and what they represent was born and nurtured at the age of 6 along with vegetables in the family garden patch.

Fortuitously, on a 1924 visit to Yellowstone National Park, the Kankakee, Ill., native inquired of Superintendent Horace M. Albright the qualifications necessary to become a temporary park ranger. Though interested, this veteran of two World Wars was not quite ready to leave academia and he had not yet met Dr. Harold C. Bryant.

"Doc" Ruhle now, still on the job. 1981.
(NPS Photo)

In 1926 on a field trip to Marin County, Calif., Doc gave an astronomy talk that so impressed Bryant that he invited Doc to go to Yosemite National Park as a nature guide. Doc couldn't believe this. "I didn't know the names of a half dozen trees, birds and animals put together in Yosemite," Doc recalled. "And I had no background in botany, zoology or any of the other natural sciences."

But Bryant pursued and soon Doc was spending his summers guiding nature walks and the other 8 months of the year teaching at the University of California.

By now an associate professor and head of the Department of Physical Chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, Doc went to Yellowstone National Park in 1928 to become one of Horace Albright's "special breed of men"—a ranger. Here he began a lifelong friendship with Albright that persuaded him to accept a full-time permanent position with the Service.

Offered a position in several parks, Doc chose to go to Glacier National Park, Mont. Because no permanent naturalist position existed at Glacier, one was created and in 1929, Doc became its first permanent park naturalist.

At Glacier from 1929-40, Doc continued to realize many "firsts." Founded in a tent by this naturalist, the visitor center at Glacier was the first museum to interpret collections rather than merely display them. He also founded the Glacier Library and was honored in 1975 by the park when it was dedicated in his name.

Another achievement, the "Ruhle Handbook: Roads and Trails Glacier-Waterton National Parks," was begun as a driver's manual. Doc, interested in passing on knowledge of the trails, ghost wrote its articles. "It became very popular, not only with drivers but with concessioner and Park Service people alike."

Urged by former Director Newton B. Drury to write a trail and nature guide for field personnel, Doc wrote the "Guide to Glacier Trails" after traversing all the trails. It was published in 1949. The most recent sequel, published in 1972, was revised to include Waterton Lakes. In addition to these publications, he also wrote most of the early interpretive guides to the parks.

While at Glacier, the Blackfeet Indians gave Doc a Blackfeet name after he settled a dispute over a portion of land once used by the Indians for hunting, fishing and harvesting timber, but was closed to these practices when it became a national park.

So Doc was adopted by a tribesman and given the name "Ninaistako" or chief mountain. This mountain stood apart from the rest—as if the chief leading his warriors into battle. To them, this represented Glacier and in turn, Glacier and chief mountain made them think of this newly adopted son.

From Glacier, Doc went to Crater Lake National Park, Oreg., in 1946, and Hawaii National Park in 1952 as chief park naturalist. At Hawaii, Doc met Harold Coolidge, an internationally known wildlife biologist, who stopped at the park on his way to the Philippines to organize the forthcoming Pacific Science Association Congress. Doc had just completed the Hawaii museum and Coolidge was impressed. He invited Doc to attend the Congress and speak on museums for the purpose of interpreting collections rather than merely for display and research. His international career launched, Doc began to build a reputation of another kind.

Often seen talking to children, Doc had a great desire to learn the language of the countries he visited so that he could easily communicate and make friends. He demonstrated a facility for both. "I always prided myself that I reached the grassroots. You get a great deal of knowledge and understanding by talking to the man in the field."

A mountain climbing and hiking buff, Doc has also achieved many "firsts" in these areas as a Park Service employee. He was the first to climb Ledge Trail in Yosemite from Camp Curry to Glacier Point in less than 50 minutes. His time was 45.20 minutes taken by Dr. David White, chief topographer of Geological Survey in 1926. Other firsts were his 1926 climb up the west face of Mount Ritter, in Yosemite; his 8-day climb of Mount Kilamanjaro from base to top in the 1940s; his climb of Mount Popocatebetl, Mexico, in 1940, and his treks from the north to the south borders of Thailand, Indonesia and Taiwan. He was also the first NPS employee to fly directly over the North Pole in the 1950s and later the first to circumnavigate Antarctica from New Zealand to Tierra del Fuego.

While on his travels in Southeast Asia, Doc picked up the title "Singing Naturalist." Schooled in the Park Service tradition of campfire singing, Doc inevitably got the group singing when leading a hike. When leading a group of non-English speakers, he taught them a simple song that the only word necessary to sing was "tra-la-la-la." "And it always tickled me," he grinned, "because orientals have so much trouble with 'r' and 'l' and they would poke each other saying 'twa-wa-wa-wa'."

In 1957, Doc attended another Science Congress, this one in Bangkok. At the end of the conference, The Bangkok Post, Thailand's leading English daily newspaper, had as their headlines, "National Parks, Irrigation, Museums Urged For Thailand." Out of 57 subjects discussed at the Science Congress meetings, Thailand had chosen the two he had spearheaded. So Thailand, along with Indonesia, requested Doc be sent to study their system of national parks. After these trips, he was often referred to as "The Father of the National Parks of Thailand."

"Doc" Ruhle in front of first NPS museum. Yosemite NP, 1926.
(NPS Photo)

Other countries this naturalist has served included Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Okinawa, Argentina, Guatemala, East Africa and India. In addition, his publications have been translated and published in Chinese and Korean.

Once home from his travels, Doc discussed with former Director Conrad L. Wirth the possibility of giving the Park Service international status. For some time the Service had been receiving letters from countries requesting information or assistance, however, with no one designated to handle this task many remained unanswered. After a trip to Athens to attend a conference of the Commission on National Parks and Protected Areas-IUCN, Director Wirth saw the value in Doc's idea.

In 1960, Doc, under the guidance of former Associate Director Hillory Tolson, founded the division of International Cooperation (now International Affairs Branch) with 2,000 unanswered letters from all over the world—some almost 10 years old. As chief, Doc recruited many talented people to handle the growing responsibilities of the new office—one of whom was Fred Packard. Drawn together by a common interest in wildlife preservation and their many scientific and conservation affiliations such as IUCN, Doc invited Packard to join the International Affairs team.

Never comfortable behind a desk, Doc stepped down as chief in 1965 to continue his field work in international conservation. The following year he received Interior's Distinguished Service Award.

Though retired, Doc still travels. And he still makes regular visits to International Affairs on the 3rd floor at 1100 L St., N.W. As congenial as ever, he'll gladly sit and talk about the good old days or his most recent trip to Tibet in which he speaks proudly of his roommate Tensig Norgay, the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Never at a loss for a story, Doc remains a great living record of NPS history and people.

Last Updated: 19-Jan-2015