Berkeley’s own “Ranger Danger” has left the building.
After 34 years as a naturalist at Tilden Park, “Ranger” Tim Gordon has opted to hang up the uniform he so often utilized to shock and delight groups of children by leaping fully clothed into a lake or whisking a live snake out of his shirt to punctuate a joke.
“There’s just something about working with kids out of doors,” says Gordon, who led literally thousands of “junior rangers” and “nature rovers” through the wilds of Tilden Park over the years. “I don’t care how grumpy you are, when it’s raining and they’re laughing, the love they have in them is contagious.”
To the myriad kids he worked with, Gordon’s Tilden Park became a magical place. Landmarks were assigned nicknames and mythological stories. A gargantuan Bay Tree became “the Grey Mother,” and its surrounding grove “the Green Sisters.” There was the “Gully Goblin,” and, of course, “the Rock With a Name Like a Sneeze.”
“It was a big boulder of blue glaucophane schist, and I always thought that sounded like a sneeze,” explains Gordon. “It’s a rock only found near earthquake faults and I used to play a game with the kids. If all the rovers got on the boulder – and it was big enough to hold 25, 26 kids – and said the name all at once, I told them a small, localized earthquake would knock me on my back. I’d grab a tree, shake it, fall on the ground, and the kids would go nuts! They’d say, ‘Do it again!’ But I’d say I could only do it once a day. Otherwise I’d be doing it forever!”
It was a roundabout path that led Gordon to become the epicenter of a localized, kid-pleasing quake. He was first bitten by the nature bug 50-odd years ago as a student at Salinas High, where one of the best summer jobs a young man could get was as a firefighter for the Department of Forestry.
Gordon studied geology at UC Berkeley between 1953 and ’57 before emulating Jack Kerouac and hitting the open road.
“At that time, it was a rite of passage for a young man to go out on the road and do manual labor, pick fruits or work on the railroads,” recalls Gordon. “Those were good times.”
Gordon returned to Cal and finished up in ’63, just in time to catch the germination of the Free Speech Movement and watch his classmates “being washed down the stairs in San Francisco” during the now-infamous protest of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
After college, Gordon eventually landed a job working with emotionally disturbed children at the East Bay Activity Center in Oakland. In what the Cliffs Notes version of Gordon’s life would chalk up as foreshadowing, the future ranger occasionally took the kids on field trips to Tilden Park, where he noticed “they became a lot easier to deal with.” When a fellow worker at the Activity Center failed to land a naturalist’s job at Tilden, he encouraged Gordon to apply for the post.
So he did.
“Oh, I had no intention of staying. I figured it’d be a couple of years then back out on the road,” recalls Gordon. “But I just got hooked. I really loved the work.”
While Gordon may be best known for his work with children (in fact, this reporter vividly recalls twilight nature hikes and spelunking through a large drainage tunnel as a 7-year-old nature rover), he will also be remembered for his efforts as an environmental and union activist, endeavors that often went hand-in-hand.
“When I first started working for the park district, it was a lot like working for the forest service,” explains Gordon, a former union president. “The idea was that land was sort of an inexhaustible resource and could just be used for people’s needs and pleasures. In a place like this, if you have a philosophy like that, the land’s not going to last very long.
“It took a while for me to figure out that one way to take a stand to protect resources was through the union,” continues the ranger. “During our collective bargaining agreements it wouldn’t just be the bread and butter issues, there’d be issues about protecting resources.”
The three prongs of Gordon’s professional life met earlier this month, as several hundred people (some of whom he hadn’t seen since “the beginning, really”) came to wish him well at his retirement party. Just some of the attendees included professors and activists Gordon had worked with to improve the ecology of Tilden Park, fellow workers who picketed with him through a hailstorm on April 1, 1975 (Day One of a two-month strike), and grown-up nature rovers, some with kids in tow.
The man who had amused children by taking the monikers “Ranger Danger, Ranger Mud” and “Ranger Trudge” was presented the Environmental Spirit Award by 1998 U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass and UC professor emeritus of Zoology Robert Stebbins. His old union, the AFSCME Local 2428 gave him a big wooden spoon, in case he ever felt the need to “stir things up.” He was even awarded a sundial-wristwatch, which he immediately dubbed “a luddite Rolex.”
In this, the first month of his retirement, Gordon has been fielding plenty of suggestions as to how to spend his time. He’s thinking about re-establishing the farming garden at LeConte School which he and his wife built 15 years ago. He’ll have more time to ride his bike (Gordon rode his bicycle to and from work – a 10 mile round trip – for years after a sore knee kept him from running it). And, of course, he has much more time to slip out to Oakland A’s games nowadays.
“If there’s a 28-inning game, now I don’t have to worry about going to work the next day,” says Gordon.
But marathon baseball games notwithstanding, Gordon never regretted showing up on the job.
“The most important thing I did in my job was reach as many people as I could,” insists Gordon. “It’s not just because of me, but people come back (to Tilden Park) and bring their kids, and bring their kids’ kids. That’s the best protection the park has. I take a lot of satisfaction in that.”