May 20, 2024
Florida Icon: Suzanne Lewis

Photo: Matthew Coughlin

"When you work in these beautiful landscapes, and the visitors are in awe, and you see people experience things for the first time, it gives you a great sense of joy," says Lewis.


Florida Icon: Suzanne Lewis

First female superintendent of eight national parks, including Yellowstone and Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve in Jacksonville; Pensacola; age 68

Kurt Loft | 5/8/2024

I was born in Wheeling, W.Va., because there wasn’t a hospital in Blaine, Ohio, where my parents lived just across the river. So, you had to cross the river to have your children.

My parents had a big influence on me. We grew up as a working-class family, and I remember my father very strongly telling me ‘You need to find something you really enjoy because you’re going to need to work your whole life. But it’s good for you, and you’ll have a better life.’ I was the first in my family to go to college.

I grew up outside, and I was outside all year long. Those were great days for kids because we had woods and forts and animals. When we moved to Dayton, we had woods on all four sides of our home, so I spent lots of time fishing, catching frogs with my brother and camping with my parents. Being outside makes you very comfortable in that environment.

My parents moved to Seminole County in 1971, and I was not crazy about it. I said to them that people vacation in Florida, but they certainly don’t live there year-round, and I don’t want to be here. I was very independent.

We didn’t have air conditioning. My mother said to my dad, ‘You either put air conditioning in this house or I’m moving back to Ohio.’ We had never dealt with this level of humidity.

I didn’t have a dream as a little girl to be a park ranger. In college, my roommate’s father was a park ranger, and I thought maybe that’s something I can do.

I graduated from University of West Florida on a Saturday and went to work the next day as a seasonal park ranger and interpreter at Gulf Islands National Seashore. I re-applied the next year and that’s when I focused my career in the park service.

For a young person, I made above minimum wage, but it wasn’t very much in 1979. It was a very big step in my life because I had job security, benefits and a purpose every day.

Moving up to superintendent of a national park was a good learning curve. I liked leadership and to make decisions using science-based information. I also was good at public speaking and my boss wasn’t, so he gave me all these opportunities to share information with the public.

Florida has a unique and sensitive ecosystem that is now very heavily populated and developed. It has a lot of acreage and different statuses and preservation, both state and federal, and it’s what keeps the ecosystem intact.

The most powerful environmental element in Florida is water. Florida’s ecosystem is heavily bound by preserving its natural water, including the aquifer.

Big Cypress National Preserve north of the Everglades was very controversial because when the mineral rights were not granted to the government, it led to a lot of controversy around extraction.

I often refer to my time at Timucuan as a great era in my career. I helped build relationships with the community and state to acquire 46,000 acres of land.

Yellowstone was my last assignment, and I was superintendent for almost 10 years there. It’s the epitome of the park service, being the oldest national park in world. It’s a huge operation with a complex ecosystem. In the summer I’d have close to 3,000 employees.

Yellowstone is a very tough job and being the first female was a difficult assignment. The park service is a male-dominated profession so a woman rising up to get the position I got was unusual.

There were times as a park ranger when the situation got a little dicey, being in very rugged terrain or on really steep trails on horseback. You need to have your wits about you and a respect for wildlife. It helps you learn to be comfortable and knowledgeable out there.

I hiked rim to rim in the Grand Canyon. Those are tough hikes and if you don’t do them on a regular basis, they get tougher. But I’m glad I had those experiences.

The park service taught me how important it is to have a mission in life and I love its mission: to preserve and protect for future generations.

My husband Michael is a native of Pensacola, a master electrician who never worked in the parks, which is probably why we were able to stay married for 41 years.

I learned to fly fish. Michael said it would help me de-stress. After I caught my first trout, I was addicted.

The most important thing in life is to follow your heart, to do what makes you curious, inspires you to work hard, to be open to other points of view, and pursue a passion. You’ve got to follow the compass that’s inside you.

Tags: Florida Icon, Feature

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