Q: Some national parks have bronze plaques honoring the first director of the National Park Service, Stephen T. Mather. Do any of the three Flagstaff-area National Monuments have a Mather Plaque?
A: Yes. As Superintendent of the Flagstaff-area monuments, it was my pleasure to host a ceremony at Walnut Canyon to dedicate a shiny new Stephen T. Mather plaque on Friday, the 101st anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS).
Many, but not all, NPS areas have Mather Plaques. Mather was appointed to that post a few months after creation of the NPS in 1916 and led the agency until his retirement in 1929.
Mather's leadership of the national parks actually began in 1915, a year before the agency itself was established. After a visit to Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks in 1914, Mather complained to Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane about their poor condition. Lane, a college friend of his, invited Mather to run the parks himself if he didn’t like things -- and Mather accepted.
During his time as director, Mather worked to promote and publicize the national parks and to advocate for creation of more parks. A rich man himself, he convinced his wealthy friends to purchase lands to enlarge parks. Mather felt the parks should be accessible to Americans of all income levels, and he engaged the auto industry to achieve that goal.
When Mather died in 1930, his friends, associates and others commissioned and paid for a memorial plaque to honor him. Twenty-two national parks, two national monuments and NPS headquarters received Mather Plaques that year.
Another run of plaques was made in 1959. Over the years, often for special anniversaries, more plaques were placed in NPS units as far flung as Alaska and the Virgin Islands. The most recent plaque recipient is our own Walnut Canyon National Monument, created by President Woodrow Wilson late in 1915, as Mather was just finishing up his first year of running NPS.
Walnut Canyon’s plaque was presented by my father, John E. Cook, retired NPS Regional Director, and Art Janssen, Mather Plaque enthusiast and scholar. The plaque was given to honor the lasting inspiration of Stephen T. Mather and to recognize the role of Walnut Canyon National Monument in uniting two NPS families — the Cooks and the Guillets — in 1958. Here is where the story gets personal. That year, Dad married my mother, Dani Guillet. Dad’s father, John O. Cook (a second-generation NPS employee) was the Superintendent at Wupatki and Sunset Crater National Monuments that year. Mom’s father, Meredith M. Guillet, was Superintendent at Walnut Canyon. John E. and Dani’s wedding reception was held June 7, 1958 at the Superintendent’s house at Walnut Canyon, which is still in use today as employee quarters.
Dad, as a third generation NPS employee, went on to have a 40-plus-year career with the agency, which included serving as the Intermountain Regional Director, overseeing over 80 NPS units including Walnut Canyon NM. In 2013, Walnut Canyon became one of “my” parks too when I became Superintendent for the three Flagstaff Area National Monuments. I’m very proud to be continuing my family’s connection to these special places.
August 25 was a significant anniversary for me, as it is for most agency folks. Those of us who wear or have worn the NPS uniform identify strongly with the agency mission — preserving these special places for the enjoyment of current and future generations — and the places themselves.
We are also inspired by the energy and vision of those who came before us — people like director Stephen T. Mather and my great-grandfather, both grandfathers, and father. As it says on every Mather Plaque, “There will never come an end to the good that he has done.”
My NPS coworkers and I will do all we can to perpetuate that good and build on it for the future. We hope you will visit Walnut Canyon National Monument to be inspired by its beauty and history, and by the new plaque gracing the entrance to the visitor center.