Will remain in, commute from Marion
Marion Reservoir Park Ranger Neal Whitaker is returning to the lake that got him interested in park management, Council Grove Lake.
Whitaker grew up in Dunlap, a community about 10 miles from Council Grove. He had an independent studies class in high school in which he studied fisheries management at the lake, and he worked there in the summers during college.
Council Grove Lake Project Manager Rick Sellers was instrumental in Whitaker working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“But for him, I probably wouldn’t be working for the Corps of Engineers,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker found out about six weeks ago that he would be re-assigned to Council Grove Lake, and the official announcement was Sept. 9. He has already started working at Council Grove Lake, but has been allowed to continue overseeing a deer hunt for disabled hunters at Marion Reservoir.
He began his career with the Corps of Engineers at Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma, where he worked for 2½ years. He then transferred to the Tulsa district office in an effort to advance his career, but he soon realized he was meant to work outdoors.
“I wasn’t happy working in an office,” Whitaker said.
Compounding matters, his mother had cancer. In April 1991, he transferred to Marion Reservoir, which was the closest lake to home that had an opening.
In his first three years at Marion Reservoir, he saw the water level go from a record low to a record high. In October 1992, the reservoir was 8 feet below normal, and by July 1993 it was 8 feet above normal.
Whitaker’s favorite duties at the reservoir have been related to community involvement. One of his favorite projects was the creation of a muzzle-loader deer hunt for disabled hunters that began about 15 years ago with help from Terry Holt, Marvin Peterson, and Warren Kreutziger.
The hunt continues to operate with former participant Torey Hett leading the way, he said.
Earth Day activities for county sixth-graders, “Owl Prowls” for third-graders and Head Start students, spring cleanup days at the reservoir, and Peabody-Burns Elementary School safety days have also been fulfilling, Whitaker said.
He also has been involved in emergency preparedness. Whitaker was an emergency medical technician for a time and has been involved with basic and swift water, ice, high-angle, and boat rescue training at the reservoir.
Whitaker has seen many changes at Marion Reservoir in his time there. Camping facilities have been upgraded and will soon be expanded. On the flip side, the reservoir had an unprecedented outbreak of dangerous blue-green algae in 2005 and 2006 and sporadic outbreaks have continued since then. The next big challenge for the reservoir will be zebra mussels, which were introduced to the reservoir in 2008.
“Their population will likely explode in the next couple years,” he said.
Despite those challenges, Whitaker is confident Marion Reservoir is in capable hands. Traci Robb is a skilled administrator, he said. Kyle Manwaring, who began working at the reservoir earlier this year, shares many of Whitaker’s interests and aptitudes. The reservoir will soon welcome another ranger, Abby Gaydusek.
“She is an exceptional young woman who has excellent people skills,” Whitaker said.
He expected Gaydusek would inherit many of his community involvement duties.
“I think Marion Reservoir has a real bright future,” he said.
Whitaker will miss many of the people he has worked with, and not just corps employees. He has made friends with all kinds of people at the reservoir, including volunteers, mowing contractors, campers, and officials from a variety of other agencies.
“The one thing that always really impressed me about this lake is the cooperation,” between federal, state, and local agencies, he said. “That level of cooperation is something you will find at very few lakes.”
Whitaker lives in Marion with his wife, Cathy, and three daughters, Megan, Katelyn, and Alicen “Annie.”
“I want to thank them for their support,” he said.
Whitaker will continue to live in Marion and will commute to Council Grove Lake.
“We’ve been here so long, we’re entrenched in the community,” he said.