Joshua Tree National Park District Ranger Jeff Ohlfs received a Special Thanks for Achieving Results, or STAR, Award on Tuesday, December 8 from the National Park Service. The STAR award recognizes Ranger Ohlfs for his ongoing project to document details of every Park Service employee who has died on duty. Ohlfs was nominated for the award by Lane Baker, the National Park Service’s Chief of Law Enforcement, Security, and Emergency Services in Washington, DC. Ranger Ohlfs also received a special commendation from National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. Ohlfs was presented his STAR Award by Park Superintendent Curt Sauer.
Since 1998, Ranger Ohlfs has carefully researched details surrounding the deaths of all National Park Service employees who are known to have died while on the job. Driven by his love of history and genealogy, and using skills honed as a trained criminal investigator, Ohlfs has contributed years of his own time and resources searching out investigative reports, death certificates, agency files, correspondence, newspaper accounts, and other public records for details on National Park Service employees who died while at work. In the process, he has interviewed hundreds of family members, friends, and colleagues of the deceased employees.
In 1993, the National Park Service created a small memorial honoring Park Service employees who died on duty. The memorial was located in a hallway of the Department Interior Building in Washington, D.C. It contained 80 names. By 1998, when a newspaper account of the memorial appeared in a national daily, Ohlfs knew that the wall was no longer complete and, in fact, contained a number of inaccuracies. He began to collect information in a desire to ensure that the memory of Park Service employees who died for their work was preserved and remained part of the agency’s history. The first employee death Ohlfs investigated was of Park Ranger James Cary, who was murdered in 1927 while serving at Hot Springs National Park.
The earliest name on the list is that of Virgil McGoodwin, an employee at Platt National Park who in 1908 was killed after being struck in the head by a drill. Oklahoma’s Platt National Park was combined with the former Arbuckle National Recreation Area and re-designated in 1976 as Chickasaw National Recreation Area, further complicating the search for accurate records.
There is one Joshua Tree National Monument employee on the list. In 1942, Peter Mahrt, a roads foreman was killed by smoke inhalation while fighting a park wildfire.
“There are many National Park Service employees who demonstrate dedication to their work” said Superintendent Sauer, “but what Jeff has achieved through years of hard work is remarkable. Much of the information connected to these former colleagues had been lost, but thanks to Jeff’s diligence, we have a more complete record of this sad, yet important part of our agency’s history.”
From the original 80 names featured on the Interior Department memorial wall, Ranger Ohlfs has now documented stories for 223 park employees who have died in service to the agency. His research led to a new, updated memorial being placed in the Department of Interior Building last year. Eventually, the results of the research will be placed on the Internet. The STAR award, though acknowledging Jeff’s dedicated efforts, only adds to the personal satisfaction he feels when he finally learns the complete story that preserves the memory of yet another dedicated worker who has given that last full measure in the service of our national parks.