Gay man takes helm of SF national park

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday August 4, 2010
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Having grown up in a large Iowa farming family, Craig Kenkel lived about as far from the ocean as one could be. He is the very definition of what seamen would call a landlubber.

"No, I can't sing a sea shanty. You don't want me to," joked Kenkel when asked if he knows any shipboard working songs.

Despite his upbringing, the question is an appropriate one for someone who now finds himself in charge of a floating flotilla of historic ocean-going vessels. In May, Kenkel became the superintendent of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

The shoreline park lies at the western end of the city's Fisherman's Wharf area. It includes Hyde Street Pier, home to five historic ships, and Aquatic Park, with its sandy beach and municipal pier.

Three months into the job and the openly gay Kenkel is still finding his seafaring legs and boning up on his sailing jargon. Yet, in many respects, he is the perfect person for the job.

He has dedicated his life's work to maintaining the National Park Service's treasures. At the maritime park he will find boats in need of repair, a crumbling pier, and a recently renovated boathouse that will be home to a revamped museum exhibition about San Francisco's nautical past.

"My career working in historic preservation is a good fit," said Kenkel in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter while seated on the deck of the square-rigged Balclutha, built in Glasgow, Scotland in 1886. "This park is fundamentally a collection of artifacts that vary in size from a small lapel pin to a floating ferry boat. The park collection, as a museum, is pretty unique."

Initially, the Hyde Street Pier was a state historical park and Aquatic Park was a city property. They were then designated a part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area upon its creation in 1972; Congress in 1988 then created the separate maritime park to better coordinate the upkeep of its five vessels, which are national historic landmarks similar to the White House or the Statue of Liberty.

Kenkel oversees the park's $11 million yearly budget and manages 80 employees. He earns $144,990 a year as superintendent. He is also responsible for the park's maritime library, which is housed at Fort Mason, as well as a historic documents collection numbering 7 million items stored in warehouses around the bay.

It is a task for which Kenkel is well equipped, even if he has never captained a sailing ship.

He began working for the national parks in 1983 while an architectural student at Iowa State University. Upon graduation he went to work for the national parks' Denver service center as a full-time historical architect.

"I totally fell into the park service by chance. We were a huge rural farm family; we didn't really vacation or go to national parks," recalled Kenkel, 50, the second oldest of 10 brothers and sisters, one of whom is his twin sister. "I just found that summer job in 1983. It was my first exposure to the national parks."

He had envisioned a life designing signature buildings for urban cityscapes. Instead he found himself traipsing through wilderness determined to save aging marine structures or gold mining outposts.

"It stirred a passion in me, I guess," said Kenkel, whose parents are now in their 70s and still live on the family's corn and hog farm, which is worked by two of his brothers. "I thought, 'Wow. We get paid to work in national parks. How amazing is this?'"

In 1988, Kenkel transferred to the park service's Western Regional Office in San Francisco, and served first as a project architect and then as Regional Historical Architect for the national parks of Hawaii, California, Nevada, Arizona and the U.S. territories of the Pacific.

While there he worked on the restoration of the Point Reyes Light Station, a landmark feature of the Point Reyes National Seashore. He also had a hand in repairing the Russian Bishop's House at Sitka National Historical Park in Alaska.

A return to SF

Then in 1992 he returned to the Midwest where he continued to work as a historical architect. Stationed in Omaha, Nebraska the single Kenkel came out of the closet.

Within five years he had been promoted to chief of the cultural resources division for the Midwest region, supervising a 30-person staff that included historians, curators, archivists, and cultural anthropologists.

 In October 2005 Kenkel returned to San Francisco to become chief of GGRNA's cultural resources division.

"I enjoyed being on that wild, urban edge. San Francisco and the Bay Area region has amazing amenities that anyone who wants to live in a world-class city can find here. But also to be so close to this dynamic wild space on the edge of the continent for me is very wonderful," he said.

Last year he was named acting deputy superintendent of the sprawling national park, and this spring took the helm at the maritime park.

"I think he is an incredible selection. He is low-key and very thoughtful in his decision-making process. He is a quiet leader, which in superintendents is a really good thing," said Rich Weideman, the park services' acting associate director of partnerships and visitor experience in Washington, D.C.

Weideman, who is also openly gay, was colleagues with Kenkel at the GGNRA, where he was chief of public affairs and special events until he was promoted this past spring.

"What a good superintendent is is a good leader, a community organizer and good partner to the community just in general. I think Craig, very much so, brings all of that into the position," said Weideman. "He was very well respected at Golden Gate by his co-workers and supervisors."

Kenkel is the third out person to be appointed to a high-ranking park service position in the Bay Area in recent years. In February 2009 Naomi Torres, an out lesbian, became superintendent of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. The park retraces the explorer's trek through California and Arizona; Torres is based out of Oakland.

Last month Christine S. Lehnertz was named the park service's Pacific West regional director responsible for 3,000 employees and 58 national parks visited by more than 56 million people annually. She will begin work in mid-August and will be based in Oakland.

Lehnertz and her partner of 16 years, Shari Dagg, are in the process of moving to the Bay Area with their golden retriever rescue from D.C. where she had been acting associate director for cultural resources. Prior to that Lehnertz was deputy superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.

"The parks in the Pacific West region are an amazing microcosm of the entire National Park System: a mix of stunning natural beauty and authentic American history," stated Lehnertz in a press release announcing her hire. "While the responsibilities of regional director are daunting, I am excited about taking on the challenge and with the prospect of working with the top-notch employees, partners, and volunteers who work in the Pacific West and throughout the National Park Service."

Throughout the National Park Service are high-ranking LGBT employees, said Weideman.

"It really proves there is no lavender ceiling in the park service," said Weideman, whose partner works as a park policeman.

He said Kenkel's hiring is of particular importance considering how important tourism and the LGBT community are to the fabric of San Francisco.

"He has a unique opportunity to educate a group of maritime people who might not have had as much exposure to the city's gay population," said Weideman. "Externally, Craig really understands the importance of tourism to San Francisco and the maritime park is a part of that tourism. For the LGBT community it is a win-win."

One of Kenkel's primary tasks will be to work with his park's staff on finding ways to make the maritime park and its holdings remain a draw for locals and tourists.

"It is a challenge for me and my staff to promote why our maritime heritage is significant to people today. We want both San Franciscans and visitors to understand why their maritime heritage is significant and still relevant today" said Kenkel. "We have a great need to reconnect Americans with the national parks. We have a challenge of making all national parks relevant to Americans."

He readily admits that he hasn't fully answered that question himself about why people should visit the maritime park.

"I have only been here two months," said Kenkel. "We are interested in knowing what our citizens, both locally and nationally, want our park to be."

An answer can be discerned from Kenkel's response when asked to name his favorite overlooked properties in the park system. In addition to Point Reyes and the GGNRA's Sweeney Ridge and Milagra Ridge areas, Kenkel pointed to Hawaii's Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Molokai, home to the still functioning colony for Hansen's disease (leprosy) patients.

"There we can learn lessons as a nation on how we treat people who are lesser advantaged," said Kenkel. "It is one of those parks that speaks to a darker time in our nation's history. It touches my soul."

He will be exploring how to tell as powerful a story at the maritime park as Kenkel and his staff work on new exhibits for the park's museum. Housed in the Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building, the museum closed in 2006 so park staff could renovate the structure and rebuild its bleachers facing the lagoon.

It is set to re-open in 2014, and Kenkel has oversight over what story park staff will tell using various nautical artifacts in its collection. One theme is likely to be how San Francisco has always been a beacon for people looking to reinvent themselves.

"People still move around the globe seeking a better life. It is a reason many people moved here in San Francisco, dating back to the Gold Rush," said Kenkel. "This city has always provided people with an amazing opportunity for a new career and for recreating yourself."

Next year Kenkel expects to begin work on a new general management plan to guide the maritime park over the next 20 years. He is looking at how to increase the number of visitors.

Today 3 to 4 million people explore Aquatic Park each year and 750,000 people board the ships at the pier. (They are open to visitors who buy a $5 ticket good for 7 days)

"Absolutely, I want to see visitorship increase. But it depends on our capacity," he said. "We don't want too many visitors to come here so your visit is diminished."

In 2016 work on the three-masted schooner named the C.A. Thayer should be completed. The ship was built in 1895 in Fairhaven, California and will be able to set sail again once it is repaired.

"The goal is to have her fully restored and be able to sail her then," said Kenkel.

Another project looming on the horizon is repairing the park's pier that juts out into the bay. Kenkel said it would cost $68 million to fix the municipal pier, which vehicles at one time could drive out on and turn around. It was used to board cars onto ferries headed to Sausalito.

For now Kenkel's hope is that the city's residents and visitors, straight and gay alike, will visit the unique park he is tasked with preserving and promoting.

You may even hear a sea shanty or two.

"Coming to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is part of the real and authentic experience of knowing and understanding San Francisco," said Kenkel.

To learn more about the park, visit