“Gentleman. Professional. Kind. Teacher. Leader.”
Those were just some of the many words used to describe West Virginia Parks chief Sam England at his retirement party.
More than 60 friends, co-workers and well-wishers gathered on Monday at the Division of Natural Resources headquarters building in South Charleston to bid farewell to England, who had headed up the park system since 2014.
His retirement came as a surprise to many of them, but not to England, who said he’d been wondering for quite some time about the effect the travel-intensive position might be having on his wife, Carol, who had been holding down the fort at their Lewis County home since he took the job.
“I’ve been on the road for close to 6 years now,” he said. “My wife has always supported me in my travels, but after talking with her [about retirement], I figured out how much she wanted me to come home.”
England believes he’s leaving the park system in somewhat better shape than it was in when he became chief.
“When I came in, I had four goals,” he said. “One, to take care of a lot of deferred maintenance; two, to enhance park revenue; three, to increase our staff’s salaries; and four, to get our camping and cabin reservations online. We’ve been able to achieve all four of those things.”
A $60 million bond issue, implemented within the past two years, has helped overcome the deferred-maintenance problem.
“With that money, we’re fixing sewer systems, water lines, electrical lines, and updating our our cabins,” England said. “To me, that’s more important than cutting ribbons on new developments.”
An uptick in tourism has helped the revenue situation.
“Getting our camping and cabin rentals online is bringing in more money,” he said. “Tourism has increased, and our marketing strategies have improved. We’re getting people to come to our parks, and to stay longer once they’re here.”
The bottom line, he added, is that visitors are bringing much-needed revenue into the system.
“At the end of fiscal year 2018, our revenues were up $1.6 million over the previous year. And then fiscal year 2019 finished $2 million up over 2018.”
England said the boost has helped state officials “find ways, working with the Division of Personnel, to compensate our hardworking staff.”
“There’s no way we could keep asking people with college degrees to come here and take park superintendents’ jobs at $25,000 a year,” he added. “We needed to be able to pay good, professional-level people.”
England said he appreciates the sacrifices parks employees make to keep the system running. He should; over the course of his 35-year career, all spent within the West Virginia system, England did a little bit of everything.
As a schoolboy growing up in Mullens, he worked on the golf-course maintenance crew at nearby Twin Falls State Park. While in college, he took jobs as a seasonal naturalist.
After graduating from West Virginia University, England immediately went to work as the full-time park naturalist at North Bend State Park.
After three years, he moved on to a succession of park-superintendent jobs: at the Moncove Lake Wildlife Management Area from 1986 to 1990; at Greenbrier State Forest from 1990 to 1998; and at Stonewall Jackson State Park from 1998 until he was named chief in 2014.
Along the way, England became the system’s “Swiss Army knife,” able and willing to take on any task he was asked to do.
When superintendents left at Cabwaylingo, Cass, Hawks Nest, Lost River and Chief Logan state parks, England filled the spots until permanent replacements were hired. He helped implement a system-wide computerized reservation system, and helped oversee the installation of wireless internet in all of the state’s resort parks.
When the Chief Logan Lodge and Conference Center was under construction, England and two co-workers spent almost a year there, getting the place ready for visitors.
He said working at all those jobs helped him to appreciate just how hard park staff need to work simply to keep the system going.
“There is no agency that has harder working staff than [parks] people,” he continued. “They own it; they work countless hours to do the right thing for visitors and for the system. Without fail, they manage things the best they can with resources available.”
England is retiring from the system’s day-to-day management, but he plans to stay involved at some level.
“I’m retiring, but I’m not quitting,” he said. “I don’t yet know how, but I do know that when you take this job, it becomes part of you. It’s a commitment. I’ve leaned on previous parks chiefs for advice and knowledge, and I suspect I’ll be doing something like that, too.
“I’m going to miss it, because it’s been a part of me so long. But at the same time, I’ll be getting to spend time with my wife, who has always supported me and has never complained.”