National Park Service
Person of the Month


This article first appeared in the Vol. 3 No. 13 (December 1980) edition of the Courier.

Portrait of Ronald F. Lee

One Saturday morning in April 1933, Verne E. Chatelain, Chief Historian of the National Park Service, sent a telegram to the History Department of the University of Minnesota, offering graduate students jobs as historical technician. No one at the university knew exactly what a historical technician did in the Park Service. Some faculty members surmised it might involve feeding the bears, an item then prominent in the news. But this was at the height of the Great Depression and historians were hungry for jobs; as a result, in less than half an hour after the telegram arrived, a reply was on its way with a half dozen historians volunteering their services. Each contributed a quarter to pay for the telegram. Without interviews or formal applications, all were hired. One of the six was Ronald F. Lee.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was just being formed to help unemployed youth; at the same time the War Department was in the process of transferring the national military parks and other historic properties under its jurisdiction to the National Park Service. Consequently, historians were needed to give guidance and direction to preservation and interpretive activities. Because of the great scarcity of jobs, the CCC drew into its orbit a number of men of notable stature and ability, including Ronald Lee.

Ronald F. Lee
(NPS Photo)

Ronnie, as he was familiarly known, came from New England stock. His father had moved from Vermont to Dickenson, N.Dak., to operate a laundry. After finishing high school there, Ronnie entered the University of Minnesota where he did his undergraduate and graduate work in American history.

His first assignment with the Park Service was at Shiloh National Military Park as a historian-foreman in a CCC camp; but in less than 2 years he was working in Washington, D.C., with the CCC State Park Group, under Connie Wirth's direction. In 1936 Verne Chatelain (in a moment of weakness) handed in his resignation as Chief Historian and Secretary Harold L. Ickes accepted it without delay. He proposed to fill the position with a political friend, but former Director Horace M. Albright blocked the appointment by appealing to the Civil Service Commission (now Office of Personnel Management), and showing that the proposed candidate was not on the civil service register.

In 1938 Ronnie was appointed Chief Historian and historical activities were undertaken at an accelerated pace. The National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings was placed on a solid footing and thematic studies of sites were presented on a regular basis to the Advisory Board on Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments. In those days, the Secretary's Office accepted recommendations from the Park Service for filling vacancies on the Board and Ronnie was instrumental in helping select persons "eminent in the fields of history, archeology, architecture and human geography," as called for in the 1935 Historic Sites Act. When the Secretary's Office began to make appointments as a reward for political favors, Ronnie countered with a proposal that a consulting committee of professionals be appointed by the Park Service to evaluate historical properties and advise the Advisory Board. This arrangement was accepted and it remained in effect until 1979, when the National Survey of Historic Sites was transferred to the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service.

During Ronnie's time as Chief Historian, well-thought-out policies and standards were formulated for research, preservation, and interpretation of historical and archeological areas. In addition, he helped to initiate a variety of sales publications, among them the 16-page historical booklet, the Handbook Series, and the Source Book Series.

In 1951 Ronnie was named Assistant Director; under him were the branches of History, Information, Natural History, and Museums. He was of a philosophical bent and was never afraid of new concepts or ideas. On the contrary, he was happiest when formulating a new program or a new approach. Whenever he could, he left the execution of programs to his subordinates; he was never hesitant or reluctant to delegate.

Ronnie's activities were not limited to the Park Service. With Dr. Christopher Crittenden, a North Carolina historian, he took a lively interest in the American Association for State and Local History. He also took an active part in the awards program of the American Scenic & Historic Preservation Society, which annually honored leaders in the conservation field. During World War II he enlisted and remained a private, serving as an instructor for a long time in England. In his spare moments he studied first-hand how the English National Trust operated, and became convinced of the need of a similar organization in the United States. When he returned to this country after the war, he became a strong advocate and leader in establishing the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and he handpicked the first director, Frederick L. Rath, Jr., for the organization. He believed strongly that the private sector should play an important role in historic preservation. He served as secretary to the National Trust until the end of his life.

In 1960 he was appointed Regional Director of the Northeast Region, whose major endeavors were in the historical field. Following his retirement in 1966, he continued to be active as assistant to the Director and helped in a variety of projects. Among them was the writing of the Family Tree of the National Park System. This was distributed to the delegates of the Second International Park Congress held in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in 1972.

Ronnie had a creative mind that was constantly searching for new ideas and for a positive approach to life's problems. He shared Robert E. Lee's conclusion that "It is history that teaches us to hope." Like Jefferson, he felt that the glow of one warm thought was worth more than money.

—Herbert E. Kahler.

Last Updated: 20-Apr-2015