When Gary Roisum was hired as the first manager of Huntley Meadows Park in January 1978, he was 27 years old, and the park was a 1,260-acre tract of virtually unaltered forest and wetlands. Roisum was placed in charge of developing the park’s facilities and programs.
Almost 30 years later, on the eve of his retirement, the park has grown by 165 acres and boasts a large visitor’s center, a boardwalk wetlands trail, wildlife observation platforms, an interpretive trail system and a hike-and-bike trail. The historic Huntley House, built by George Mason’s son, has also been placed under the purview of Huntley Meadows. Each year, the park hosts 550 programs and 200,000 visitors, and it has come to be regarded as "the jewel" of the Fairfax County Park Authority.
Roisum oversaw this transformation, although he acknowledged at his retirement party in the park’s visitors center Friday evening, May 11, that the work would have been impossible without a dedicated staff and an army of volunteers.
"You have given us a great foundation for this park," Cindy Walsh, the Park Authority’s acting division director for resource management, told Roisum Friday evening. "I know you’ve left us in great hands here, and I really, really appreciate that."
Mona Enquist, a manager within the Resource Management Division, said Roisum, who is quick with a wisecrack, liked to tease her about her age, although their ages are nearly equal. So she had always responded by taking aim at his hair, which appears to be as meticulously tended to as that of any news anchorman. However, Enquist told the crowd of 30 or 40 people that she had come to the conclusion that his hair reflected his personality.
She noted its wind-resistance and that Roisum, too, was "unflappable. No matter what is happening around him, it doesn’t impact him." She pointed out that the day’s humidity had failed to flatten Roisum’s hair. "Gary is never flagging, and he’s always determined, and I admire that," said Enquist. Most importantly, though, she said, was the accuracy with which his hair’s "impeccable grooming" reflected the care with which he had "groomed and grown this place" and the attention to detail that had led him to sources of staffing and funding for the park
Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) later noted Roisum’s "incredible record of public service" and the fact that he had made the park enjoyable to the general public and not just wildlife specialists. However, he revealed, "part of me was always a little envious of his job."
Norma Hoffman, who in the late 1970s founded the Citizens Alliance to Save Huntley to prevent the county from building a road through the park, noted that the Park Authority had found itself ruled out of the fight. However, she said, she "did get support from Gary." She later volunteered at the park and co-founded Friends of Huntley Meadows Park.
"I worked very closely with him, and he’s been very responsive, very supportive and very wise in his role," said Hoffman.
WHEN HIS TURN came to speak at the celebration, Roisum expressed his appreciation for the members of his staff and his pride in having been a part of creating the park, and he noted that he had something to "transfer to the new park management." He handed a box of earplugs to incoming manager Kevin Munroe, explaining, "There’s this thing called female chatter …"
As the guests trickled out after the festivities, Roisum explained that in his 20s he had planned to travel out west and manage a large forest park. However, he had been induced to take the job at Huntley Meadows in part by the park’s size. Also he said, "it intrigued me to be able to develop a raw natural park from scratch, and I wanted to get in on the ground level to do that." The project confronted him with many challenges, but looking back, he said, he would not do anything differently.
He now plans to travel with his fiancée, taking his sailboat around the Chesapeake Bay, heading north to Alaska for a month or so "to explore the natural wonders there" and then living on his property in Costa Rica for a while. The two plan to wed in July. One thing he will miss, he said, is "getting my claws into environmental protection."
Roisum added that he plans to pursue other such projects later on.
The boardwalk trail at Huntley Meadows was recognized with a Fairfax County Exceptional Design award in 1999. The next year, the park received the National Association for County Park and Recreation Official’s Environmental Award for programs to monitor water quality and invasive plants.