Two of Orange County’s original park rangers share stories of rescues, sing-alongs and Rocky the raccoon
By DAVID WHITING | firstname.lastname@example.org | Orange County Register
PUBLISHED: August 1, 2018 at 12:39 pm | UPDATED: August 1, 2018 at 2:45 pm
When I was a wee lad, park rangers built big bonfires, led marvelous sing-alongs and in Yosemite — and I am not making this up — dumped massive amounts of burning embers over Glacier Point.
Ah, those were the good ol’ days. Or not, especially with today’s kindle-dry wildfire conditions.
But closer to home and a half-century ago, Orange County rangers worked their keisters off rushing around and doing everything from maintenance to animal control to helping control floods.
On the week in which park rangers are honored throughout the world (Tuesday, July 31 was World Ranger Day), let’s meet two of Orange County’s original park rangers, men who multitasked by issuing parking tickets, conducting nature walks and clearing out carnivorous beasts called African clawed frogs.
Mike Curran is 88 years old and was the first park ranger to serve the county. Back in the 1960s, the idea was so new that Curran was not only the supervising ranger — he was the only ranger.
Curran was responsible for 40 miles of coastline, virtually all county parkland, sandbagging against torrential rains and, yes, conducting sing-alongs.
He recalls the job as a seven-day-a-week gig that continually tested his know-how and imagination.
There was the mundane: Ensuring sanitation.
There was the deadly serious: Searching for drowning victims.
There was the crazy: Organizing a coot shoot in Mile Square Park to get rid of an infestation of birds that had killed the entire perimeter of grass around the lake.
“There were thousands of coots,” Curran recalls, both smiling and wondering what the heck he was thinking. The problem was that live ammunition was involved.
Curran shakes his head in amazement that no one was injured — let alone killed.
Baptism by flood
I meet Curran at the nature center in O’Neill Regional Park and his colleague, Richard Dyer, soon joins us.
At 89, Dyer is one year older than Curran, although Dyer joined Orange County’s park system a few years later. On a hot weekday, the nature center is deserted. But if you have a chance, the place is well worth visiting.
Before we have a chance to check out the impressive collection of stuffed animals that includes two mountain lions, both men are swapping stories and comparing old experiences with new.
Today, OC Parks is a complex, multi-layered system that takes in 60,000 acres and more than two dozen parks that include beachfront as well as foothills. Events vary from mountain bike races to summer concerts. And a small army of rangers serves more than 13 million visitors a year.
Curran was an army of one when he was sworn in and deputized in 1969.
Immigrants from Ireland, Curran and his wife, Mary, settled in Southern California in 1957. Within seven years, he worked his way up to senior maintenance manager and passed a rigorous eight-hour test a few years later to become park ranger.
His background working in hotels in Ireland and grounds maintenance made the difference in being hired. He knew flora, fauna and, best of all, he knew people.
Today, the Currans have five sons, 13 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Not surprisingly, Curran’s first job was hiring staff. But before he could tackle hiring, the flood of 1969 hit.
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Millions of gallons poured over spillways at Villa Park, Santiago and Prada dams. In Santa Ana, streets flooded. In Huntington Beach, some parts resembled Venice, Italy.
In Irvine Regional Park, deer were so panicked there was little Curran could do.
The old ranger stares at the wood floor. Many creatures didn’t survive.
Jobs for Marines back from Vietnam
In the mid- to late-1960s, the county realized that to build up its park system they needed bulldozers, trucks and at least 50 people.
Fortunately, it was easy for Curran to fill the positions. Marines returning from Vietnam were eager to stay in Southern California and work in the outdoors. They quickly became the backbone of the parks system.
Early on — and still today — one of the the biggest problems was dealing with residents who blocked beach access and encroached on public beach.
“We had an awful time in south county,” Curran allows. “From Corona del Mar on down, they built out to the high tide line.”
Eventually, though, tough-minded rangers managed to curtail encroachment.
Another major problem was trying to prevent people from robbing tidepools. Dyer puts it plainly: “They would just take stuff.”
When it came to two nude beaches, however, rangers decided individual freedoms trumped residential complaints.
Wearing an OC Parks green and orange cap, Dyer shares that his father was what was called a “park policeman.” Dad patrolled Griffith Park in Los Angeles on horseback.
After high school, Dyer and his brother launched a horticulture business, and when he applied to be a park ranger in Orange County in the early 1970s he had all the background he needed for the job.
Dyer’s first position was at O’Neill park, established in 1948 and one of Orange County’s earliest parks. There, he served as supervisor, maintenance man and trail expert.
His least favorite job was handing out tickets. His most favorite job was storytelling around a campfire.
Dyer smiles and recalls those halcyon days. “I’d take people on nature hikes and we always went to the highest point.”
Still, being a park ranger in those days meant tackling almost anything, from street sweeping to baseball field maintenance.
Curran even recalls going to county jails on Fridays so he could borrow enough handheld radios to cover weekend staffing.
Still, enforcement was nearly impossible. “We had no authority to arrest anybody,” Curran points out, “especially in camping areas.”
Escape by lawnmower
As the afternoon continues and the heat builds, so do the retired rangers’ stories.
Curran and Dyer share about guarding headstones on Halloween in historic Yorba Cemetery; struggling to control an especially nasty raccoon named “Rocky” in Irvine Regional Park; chasing an inmate who attempted a getaway from Mile Square Park aboard a lawnmower.
Before we part ways, the men suggest I check out a Facebook site called “We Were Park Rangers Once.”
On the site I spot retired OC Parks ranger Tom Maloney who a decade ago was supervising park ranger for the County of Orange Harbors, Beaches and Parks Division.
Like many retired rangers, Maloney has remained an active volunteer and is fueled by his passion for the environment as well as his love of people and the outdoors.
Several years ago, Maloney helped the daughter of a Vietnam War-era naval reserve airman killed on Saddleback Mountain find the remains of her father’s plane.
In tough terrain, Susan Walley Schlesman spotted what was left of Lt. Cmdr. Oliver Walley’s Lockheed Neptune.
There were tears on steel. But there also was some closure for a woman whose dad died when she was two years old.
World Ranger Day’s motto includes these words: “Protectors of parks and conservation.”
I will add “and protectors of so much more.”
Photo: Former Orange County park rangers Michael Curran, 88, left, and Richard L. Dyer, 89, are shown at the O’Neill Regional Park nature center in Trabuco Canyon on Monday, July 30, 2018. In 1969 Curran became Orange County’s first park ranger and Dyer became a ranger in 1972. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)