(The following is the introduction given by Dr. Thomas C. DeFranco at the Neag Alumni Awards Dinner.)
Peering out at the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon on a family vacation when she was just eight years old sparked an interest in Fran P. Mainella that culminated in her presidential appointment as the first woman director of the National Park Service, a post she held from 2001 until 2006.
Mainella, a native of Willimantic, CT, and former summer playground supervisor from Groton, CT, had responsibility for 390 sites, including Yellowstone National Park, historical monuments such as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, the Appalachian Trail and parks in Guam and Puerto Rico. She also oversaw 22,000 employees, 125,000 volunteers and a $2.4 billion budget.
At the time of her 2001 appointment by President George W. Bush, Mainella said, “I am excited and inspired by the challenges that this position holds as we work to conserve our country’s precious natural and cultural resources, and improve outdoor recreational opportunities within the National Park System …[and] I look forward to working with the dedicated women and men of the National Park Service, as well as state, local and private sector partners, to help fulfill my commitment to the conservation and restoration of our national parks.
While with the National Park Service, Mainella visited 250 out of 390 national parks, monuments and historic places in her tenure as director. She worked to strengthen programs to preserve natural and cultural resources in the parks. She focused especially on creating opportunities through volunteerism, partnership and outreach programs.
As former Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, who applauded her strong leadership as director, stated, “Perhaps your most important contribution [as director] is your effort to foster a culture of partnership within the National Park Service. Thanks to your leadership, today virtually every national park works in partnership with state and local officials, local residents and friends groups.”
When Mainella resigned as director in October of 2006, she spent her last day in Groton, where she first worked as a summer playground counselor, and relit the lamp at the lighthouse where her father was stationed in the Coast Guard in World War II.
With more than 30 years’ experience in park and recreation management, Mainella was well qualified to be the 16th parks director. After graduating from UConn’s School of Education with a BS in physical education, she taught middle school, then earned a master’s degree in school counseling. She credits the School of Education at UConn for helping her on her career.
She once stated, “I credit UConn with giving me the leadership tools so that I was ready to take quantum leaps forward from the playground to the state of Florida’s parks system to the federal government. My education gave me the courage to go for the brass ring.”
After six years of service with the National Park Service, Mainella joined Clemson University as a visiting scholar in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management. In that role, she has been leading seminars for graduate students in the program and helped to raise funds for a research and training center in park management.
As a visiting scholar, Mainella has been a committed advocate on outdoor activities. In a 2007 Newsweek Magazine article, she said, “The best way to protect our resources for the future is by helping children develop an appreciation for the outdoors. It’s part of a movement underway right now, with people across the nation working on how to get children linked back to nature. The best way to protect our parks and our environment is to foster an appreciation for the outdoors,” she continued in the article. “We can call this movement ‘no child left inside.’”
Today, Mainella co-chairs the U.S. Play Coalition, which was created out of last year’s summit on the Value of Play and believes that “…play is a basic human need and the foundation of strong intellectual, physical and emotional development.” … Play is essential to a person reaching his or her full potential.”
Fran Mainella has been a playground supervisor, teacher, national leader in parks and recreation administration, and now a parks and play advocate and scholar. She had the courage to go for the brass ring and never looked back while being an advocate for children and the outdoors.