Park Manager Jo Anna White

Park Service Profiles

State Parks Are a Way of Life

Jo Anna White’s state park career was literally a baptism by fire. It began 19 years ago at Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet, just after Hurricane Hugo wreaked havoc throughout the state.

“I was at Kings Mountain before the move to Huntington and we saw Hugo’s devastating effects even here. On the drive to Murrells Inlet I wondered what there would be left of the park,” White said.

She recalls arriving to locked gates and a forest that was gone.

“The shore line was in ruins and beach side facilities had been moved from their foundations or destroyed. But the centerpiece of the park, Atalaya, still stood strong. There was a lot of work to be done, not just at Huntington Beach, but throughout the state parks system.”

Parks staff statewide spent months working in teams putting the park back to use, cleaning the shore, clearing debris, stabilizing the campground and establishing a temporary office. As money became available, White said mobile units were brought in as a temporary office, restrooms and park store.

What White remembers most during this time is a fawn. “When I went to interview for the job at Huntington before Hugo, I was introduced to a young deer. It apparently survived the hurricane and we became buddies. He was the pet of the park.”

A small town girl, White grew up in Grover, NC, a stones throw from Kings Mountain State Park.  As a child, her family would camp there and the lake swimming area was always the biggest attraction. It was during college at Wingate University in Wingate, NC, that her love for parks manifested.

“During my freshman year, I took a life guard course for certification and hounded the staff at Kings Mountain to hire me. I finally got my dream job as a life guard and began to love park life. During my remaining college years, I continued to beg park Superintendent Lew Cato for a full-time position, White said.

Armed with a bachelor’s of science degree in Parks and Recreation Administration from Wingate, White worked as a life guard at Kings Mountain the summer of 1989.

That fall she started work as an A-2 or part time staffer in the park’s store, nursery and maintenance areas while waiting for a Ranger I slot to become available. She interviewed at Edisto Beach and Dreher Island before landing a full-time position at Huntington Beach.

Career moves since then include park management assistant at Kings Mountain, Oconee as that park’s assistant manager and her current job as park manager for Lake Hartwell.

“I am learning to be a park leader and decision maker in all aspects at Lake Hartwell,” White said. “It’s important that I set the example and work closely with the staff. Here, I perform everything from minor maintenance to park operations.”

Along the way it’s the camaraderie within the state parks family that makes each individual feel special.  An example of this warm solidarity came during a Search and Rescue training. “Our team got lost on a search detail,” White said. “When I returned to Oconee, there was a sealed envelope on my desk containing a detailed map from my residence to the park office so I wouldn’t get lost coming to work – all courtesy of Horace Craig and staff.”

Another example of this deep unity came during her stint at Oconee State Park. “A massive car accident almost took the life of Becky Sobeck, an employee I worked closely with. She was not supposed to survive the night and was in a coma for several months. But the park staff family pulled together and with our support and prayers kept Becky with us,” said White.

White said Oconee is probably the most family oriented park in the system and she found it the most fun in her parks career. “We had Friday night square dances, numerous activities for the children and a staff that enjoys what the park means to all.”

Lake Hartwell is now home for White and her family, which includes her husband, Allen, and 8-year old daughter, Mattison. She also has two step sons, 27-year old Jason and 22-year old Eric.

Would she encourage others to become a park ranger? “Absolutely yes,” White said. “It’s a way of life.”

Jo Anna has since been promoted to park manager of Oconee State Park.