By the time he was 8 years old, Gerry Allen had already chosen a career. “I wanted to be a National Park ranger. That’s all I wanted to do,” he recalls. When he got to Auburn University, he shaped his studies—a biology major and minors in forestry, outdoor recreation, and wildlife management—with the aim of becoming “the world’s greatest park ranger.” But he came of age during the Vietnam War, and rather than being drafted, he interrupted his studies for a four-year stint in the Coast Guard. By the time he finished college, he was married, and he and his wife, Linda, had welcomed the first of their two sons. Suddenly, becoming a ranger didn’t seem like the most responsible option.
“The Park Service is part of the government, and down low, there’s not much money,” Allen says. “Once the kids came along, I needed to take care of them.” It wasn’t just a matter of income; he wanted to give his kids a stable home base, and park rangers often serve in extreme locations. “Starting out, it would’ve been hard to provide what I wanted to out in the middle of Death Valley with plywood down on the floors.”
So Allen and his family settled in Atlanta, and he went to work for Delta Air Lines, where he helped set up the company’s environmental programs. It wasn’t the work that he’d dreamed of, but that doesn’t mean he was unhappy. “It was a wonderful job, a great job,” he says. He got to travel the world, develop programs to identify and clean up hazardous waste, and ensure that the facilities where airlines store their fuel supplies were environmentally sound.
Still, as much as he enjoyed his 29 years at Delta, he never lost sight of his boyhood dream. Thinking back on those years, he laughs, remembering, “When we’d go on vacation, I’d always take my kids to national parks, and every time I’d see a park ranger, I’d say, ‘That sucker’s got my job.’ ”
In 2001, after the disruptions of 9/11, Delta offered thousands of employees an early retirement package. Gerry was 56 at the time, and Linda recognized an opportunity to start over. “My wife said, ‘You know, the kids are gone. They’re offering us a pretty good package. I’m willing to sell the house and move around like a gypsy if you want to go to work for the park service.’ ”
And so the Allens’ great second-act adventure began.
Gerry Allen took a job in a Bass Pro Shop while he conducted his job search. After four months and between 60 and 80 applications to parks all over the country, he landed his first Park Service post, at Vicksburg National Military Park as a “visitor use assistant, fee collector.” “That’s the guy who sits at the gate and takes $5 as the cars come through,” he says.
Moving from Atlanta to Mississippi to take the job may seem a little extreme, but Allen was happy. “I got to wear the uniform,” he says. Of course, that doesn’t mean he was content in that position. Determined to work as an interpretive park ranger, he progressed up the Park Service career ladder—with stops at three other parks along the way—until he found his current position at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. “We've moved house about eight times in the last 10 years,” he recalls. “That's where my wife is the key. She could've stopped it all if she'd wanted to, but she was adventurous, too.”
Allen finally has his dream job, instructing visitors—often school parties—about the history of the park and the Civil War battles that occurred there. He’s essentially an educator, but unlike most teachers, his lesson plans sometimes involve firing cannons and shooting rifles, and, of course, he wears a uniform—in his case, a standard National Park Service ranger issue. “A lot of the guys dress up like soldiers, but I’m too old for that,” he says.
Allen is 67 now, and while he has no thoughts of retirement, he doesn’t plan to move again anytime soon. When he first launched his second career, he was willing to do just about anything for a job in the National Park Service. “I would’ve gone anywhere from Alaska to Guam to the Everglades. But now with the grandkids”—four have come along since Gerry and Linda left Atlanta—“we like to be within a day’s drive of them all.” (Slate Web designer Holly Allen is their daughter-in-law.)
Asked to offer advice to anyone considering a midlife career switch, Allen says, “You can’t be afraid. If you’re afraid, don’t do it.” Looking back at all the challenges of breaking into a new profession, his early days at the bottom of the Park Service ladder, and all the packing and unpacking the Allens faced as they hopped from park to park, Gerry still feels incredibly lucky to have landed his dream job. “Timing, hard work, and the support of my wife were the keys for me. But I really wanted to do it,” he says. “It all comes down to how bad you want to do it.”