Local News

Smith named Volunteer of the Year

SEBRING - Darrel Smith is a retired park ranger, so he wasn't required to work 1,457 hours at the CCC Museum and Highlands Hammock State Park.

But three years ago, he was hit by a car while bicycling. Perhaps while he was dead, he stood before golden gates and he heard a voice.

"I'm not speak metaphorically. I felt his voice talk to me. I don't know if it was the Lord or St. Peter or whatever. But I was told I wasn't allowed through."

Smith, the first curator at the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum at Highlands Hammock State Park, was told to finish his work.

So perhaps that's why Smith got up at 4:30 a.m. to help with the Bike Sebring 12/24 Hours, then reported to Highlands Hammock, which would receive the managers and volunteers for 36 state parks in the Southwest District at a 10:30 a.m. ceremony.

What Smith didn't realize is that he would accept the regional award for Male Volunteer of the Year, and that his fellow workers, the Friends of Highlands Hammock State Park, would be presented with Citizen Support Organization of the Year Award.

As park manager after park manager took the stage and thanked their own volunteers, it became clear that parks are run by small squadrons of rangers and large companies of volunteers.

The Friends have provided more than $5,000 for park projects. They sponsor six Music in the Park concerts annually that have raised $5,900; a Turkey Trot 5K run or walk on Thanksgiving that raised $19,500 last year and brought visitors from Polk, DeSoto, Hardee and Okeechobee counties; raised $18,600 from the sale of firewood to campers; and raised $17,400 from weekend tram rides.

Highlands Hammock, which became a state park in 1935, is the oldest of the eight original parks built by the CCC under the FDR Administration.

Because the park is so closely tied to the CCC, Smith created a one-man living history presentation, "The Best of Times, the Worst of Times," a look back at the Great Depression and the boys who were wandering America looking for work. With more than a quarter of the country unemployed, President Roosevelt gathered the youngest men into military-style camps. They controlled erosion by planting trees and gras, collected seeds, prevented fires, stocked fish, controlled mosquitoes, constructed roads, ponds, bridges, fire lookout towers, irrigation ditches, dams, even houses and service buildings at state parks that stand today. Later, many of the CCC boys joined the military and fought World War II.

As a re-enactor, Smith dons CCC uniforms. "Today, I'm taking on the character of Velmar Max. He was here from 1935 to 1936," Smith said.

As CCC boys have returned to their camp, then known as State Park 3, Smith interviewed them and therefore videotaped hours of living history.

Back then, Max was one of the few boys who knew how to drive, so he was a truck driver.

Smith acknowledges that he is one of the state's leading authorities on the CCC, and calls the museum his.

"He puts his heart and soul into it," said his daughter Vicki Jarvis. Her father, her mother and her husband, Mike, are all volunteers.

"He is a kind-hearted man, and he cares a great deal about the park. He should be dead because of the accident. I think the park is what keeps him alive."