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Connie Backlund looks back on Connemara progress

Connie Backlund holds Barney, one of the baby goats in a herd of Carl Sandburg home 'ambassadors' Connie Backlund holds Barney, one of the baby goats in a herd of Carl Sandburg home 'ambassadors'

FLAT ROCK — Connie Backlund grew up on "an All American farm" in Ohio.


"My dad farmed about 400 acres of corn, soybeans, oats, cows, eggs, pigs, chickens, steers, the ducks and the cats and the dogs," she said with a laugh. Walking through a four-acre hickory forest and a larger seven-acre patch they called the big woods, her dad could name every tree.
"He's the one that knew everything about nature," she said. "Farmers just do. They're out on the land and they learn everything about the land."
It followed then that young Connie would find her way into the woods professionally. Between her sophomore and junior years at Bowling Green State University, she traveled with a field study class to major national parks of the west — the Badlands, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone.
"Our biology professor always had us go to the evening campfire programs," she recalled. "Sitting there, I knew the first time I saw that campfire program that's what I wanted to do."
She achieved her goal. Now, after 38 years with the National Park Service and 18 at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock, Backlund is hanging up her ranger's hat.
"My last day of serving you and the community and the American public is Oct. 3, and that is how I view it," Backlund told Flat Rock Village Council members earlier this month. She presented a state of the park message that was a typical Connie Backlund performance. First, it's not a performance at all. A genuine commitment comes through in all that she says. It's just the way she is. The steady, unassuming woman with the little girl's voice and delicate features is a huge advocate for the park service, the Carl Sandburg home and most of all the people that both serve. She was born to do what she's done.

SUBHED: Heading west
Her goal set, Backlund set her sights on the west. She applied twice to the great parks of the west, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, and was turned down.
"However, I had also applied out in those areas for concessions, and I was hired as a cabin maid and waitress at a lodge about 15 miles east of Yellowstone," she said. "That was the first step. So the next summer I also applied and once more was not hired."
A schoolteacher in fall and winter, she took a job in summer with the Ohio state parks system. She learned a lot but still longed for a National Park Service job. One of her bosses suggested she look south.
"She said, consider the Appalachians, look at Shenandoah, look at the Blue Ridge Parkway," she said. She landed a job at Shenandoah. In her second summer there a supervisor asked if she wanted to continue working through October — "the busiest month, just like here." She said yes, leaving the classroom behind and going outside for good. She worked as year-round seasonal employee, deploying to the Everglades in the winter, and Shenandoah and, later, Mount Rainier in the summer.
"And for me, an Ohio farm girl who had never traveled — you don't get vacations from milking cows — that's how I discovered out country," she said, still sounding filled with wonder, as if she had just gotten back last week.
As she grew into her later 20s, she became less enamored with the travel and constant packing at the end of each season.
"After a while you do not want to move so much and you begin to think you should acquire more than fits in a car," she said.
Her big opportunity came at a place with a big name. At Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, she became a generalist in the ranger business, learning resource management (she surveyed life in the caves), programming, EMT training and law enforcement.
"When you're in the 'forever' parks business," she said, using her term for the National Park Service mission, "sometimes that work is educational — sharing the story — sometimes it's law enforcement, and sometimes it's public relations."
The U.S. government sent her to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., where she learned the same cop work as other federal law officers, including shooting, making arrests and pursuit driving. She met and married her husband, Gibb, a fellow ranger, at Mammoth Cave. They will celebrate their 31st anniversary on her retirement day.
The couple went together to a posting at Cape Hatteras national seashore.
"The views I have had out of my office," she said. "Not everyone gets to look out their office and see the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse."
She next won a promotion as a trainer who traveled the country teaching interpretative programming, based out of Harper's Ferry, W.Va. She traveled to Alaska, one of the highlights of her career.

SUBHED: Restrooms, trails and goats

Backlund got the Sandburg Home superintendent's job in in 1994, when the headquarters was in "the little green building next to the farm caretaker's house."
Among the highlights of her tenure, she said, has been upgrading the trails, adding the new headquarters and climate-controlled storage building for the vast Sandburg archive left by the poet and his wife, and upgrading restrooms.
What's the most asked question in the park? "Where's the restroom?" she said, and she very seriously makes the case that restrooms are really important. "It's one of the most important ways the public evaluates how the national park is being cared for."
"If I'm out and about in the community people ask me, where do you work? Then the next best thing is the response. 'We love the Carl Sandburg home.' These are real important comments because you want people to have a relationship, an individual relationship, with their national parks. That's what we strive for."
People also ask about the goats. Backlund said the history of the poet, the trails and the land are all important. But when she came to Flat Rock "I quickly learned that the goats are our goodwill ambassadors," she said.
One more question people often ask, seeing her uniform and her badge and her campaign hat, knowing that her office is the woods and the mountains and her job is to work outside, is, "How did you get your job?"
She has run into many people, some successful in other walks of life, who tell her they always longed to be a park ranger.
"Just hang on to your dreams of doing what you really want to do," she said. "I feel very blessed that the career I've wanted is the career I've had."