Eight years ago, John Kerr had no idea what to do next when he retired from his job as a public television executive in Boston at age 65. For four decades, he had worked at WGBH, most recently appealing for funds on the air, turning him into a highly recognizable mendicant.
After flummoxing around for about a month, he put his belongings in storage, loaded up his camper truck and drove west to Jackson Hole, Wyoming where his family owned a small condominium. During his travels, he stopped by the Yellowstone National Foundation, which raises funds for Yellowstone National Park, and happened to hear that it was hiring people to educate visitors about wolves.
He immediately applied for a position -- and landed it.
"So I got one of two positions available, thanks to [people] who took a bet on a geezer. And the next thing I knew, there I was, wearing a Student Conservation Association shirt usually worn by high school and college interns, out on the roadsides, talking with visitors every day, and selling wildlife stewardship and keeping visitors safe instead of raising money for public broadcasting," said the now 74-year-old. "Suddenly, I had landed in heaven."
For Kerr, it was a short hop from being "Wolf Ambassador" to being named a park ranger. "The Student Conservation Association, in fact, encourages its interns -- who are usually of high school or college age -- to pursue just such a path," he said. "And so I applied for a position as a general seasonal park ranger."
It's a role he's unwittingly prepared for much of his life.
Back in his hometown of Lincoln, Massachusetts, an historic community near Boston, Kerr had laid the groundwork for building a strong conservation ethic through his work in local government.
"I had become a community leader as a selectman. I also helped out on the local fire department, where I did medical calls, day or night," he said. "That experience was of direct use and benefit when I became a ranger in Yellowstone. There, I now work as an EMT and help run the ambulance and attend to visitors in emergencies. It's odd, isn't it, how things connect?"
Today, Kerr's ranger days stretch from May through September, a time when he makes his home in a small rented cabin just outside the park's northeast entrance.
"I get to see bears, wolves and more every day as a seasonal park ranger in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, work with some of the best naturalists and park rangers in the world, help people rediscover the wild and keep them safe, practice wildlife stewardship in a very direct way, and try to elevate the experience of visitors every day in America's first national park," he said.
In the winters, Kerr moves to a larger cabin in Wilson, Wyoming, just outside Jackson.
"I use the winter months to travel and to visit family -- important connections for me, as I have three adult children and grandchildren, siblings and important friends," he said.
Kerr calls his job as a ranger -- which he's performed for the last eight years -- as the opportunity of a lifetime.
As a boy, he remembers some vague urge to become a park ranger at about the same time he wanted to become a fireman. "I think it was the hat," he quipped.
Kerr said his grandfather instilled in him a love of the outdoors as a child, teaching him how to hunt, fish, track animals and -- most importantly -- stand totally still in the woods for long periods of time to see what might emerge.
"But did I leave Boston after my retirement from WGBH and specifically seek a position as a park ranger in Yellowstone? No," he said. "But somewhere deep within me was the deep urge to do something to transfer my experience as a marketer and development professional to that of stewarding the environment and working to protect critters and land that can't speak for itself."
Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Encore.org, a nonprofit organization working to promote second acts for the greater good, said this about Kerr:
"John Kerr started over in a line of work not just for a change of scenery, but for a new sense of purpose. He’s part of the great midlife migration, winding his way into uncharted territory toward a new stage of life. And he’s at the vanguard of navigating a much larger transition, as millions of people in their 50s and beyond grapple with essential questions about their futures. People of all ages have a stake in the outcome."
Kerr's next dream? That the National Park Service will start a program for those of retirement age that will recruit, train and supervise a whole new group of dedicated rangers to enhance what is already being done.
"Although there is an extensive program at the National Park Service called Volunteers in the Park, there is no broad recruiting or placement mechanism at the National Park Service through which experienced retirees can find paid work in our national parks as seasonal rangers to augment the excellent work already being done at a time of tight budgets," Kerr said. "So for now, people like myself are left on their own to find a way in if they want to apply their experience and skills to a national park in their encore years.
"Given the flood of coming boomers now hitting retirement age, this may be the perfect time for the park service to develop ways to harness the power of the coming encore generation and put encorists like myself to work in our national parks to enhance the excellent work already being done," he said.