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The Arch's Mike Ward Offers An Inside Look At Running A National Park Service Site

Mike Ward is superintendent of the Gateway Arch National Park, but has been involved with the National Park Service since 1983.
File Photo | Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

When the Gateway Arch began undergoing renovation back in July 2015, Mike Ward moved back to St. Louis to become its superintendent — a role he’s held ever since. But his time with the National Park Service goes way back to 1983. 

A lot of his work at sites near and far over the years has had to do with the physical aspect of the NPS entities: repairing them, creating new spaces. But Ward loves historical digging and exploring the human interest stories to be found within the sites under his care just as much. 

He began his now 37-year career as a teenager in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, at the Abraham Lincoln National Historic Site. His mom enrolled him in its summer youth program — her way of keeping him out of teenage trouble, according to Ward. 

He quickly fell in love with the renovation projects he got to help on and kept coming back for seasonal jobs at the site for eight years. The expertise he gained landed him his first permanent job as the facilities manager — and then superintendent — of the NPS’s Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis. 

There, he gained professional qualities that set him up for his future endeavours, including administrative duties, planning, how to start a park, how to attract visitors and how to treat cultural resources and landscapes. He formed a team at the site that worked on more than 50 sites across the Midwest region — such as Nicodemus in Kansas, the first black settlement after the Civil War west of the Mississippi River, and Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Eventually, he left the region for Minnesota to become superintendent of Voyageurs National Park, where he helped further international relations in coordination with Canadian officials. 

But 2015 marked what Ward has described as a full-circle turn: He took on what he describes as a “chance of a lifetime” project, helping guide the $380 million, multiyear transformation of the Gateway Arch National Park.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Ward joined host Sarah Fenske to talk about these cherished sites, what it takes to keep them going and how the Arch is doing during a pandemic.

Listen to the full conversation: 

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.