Dwight Pitcaithley lectures on “100 Years of Our National Parks,”and a show of nature photos by David Muelch
ingrade school, some kids already know what they want to do when they grow up. Dwight T. Pitcaithley was not one of those. “I grew up in Carlsbad, and I was a terrible student, but I was pretty good at music,” he told Pasatiempo recently. “I was a percussionist, and when I went to college the first time, I majored in music, which was really hard. You have to be very disciplined. I lasted three years at Eastern New Mexico University before they asked me to leave and come back when I thought I could keep my grades up.”
Pitcaithley would go on to a 30-year career with the National Park Service. He speaks at the New Mexico History Museum on Sunday, Sept. 4, on “100 Years of Our National Parks.”
After leaving ENMU, he joined the Marine Corps. That was in the summer of 1964, and one month later, there was a sea battle between American and North Vietnamese vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin that accelerated U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Pitcaithley served three years in the Marines, including six months in Vietnam. He returned to ENMU, and for reasons he doesn’t fully understand, he chose to study history and excelled at it. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees there and then went to Texas Tech for his doctorate in Western history.
In the mid-1970s, he was hired for a temporary job by National Park Service historian Richard West Sellars of the NPS’ Southwest Regional Office on Old Santa Fe Trail. Pitcaithley recalled, “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven working in the Santa Fe regional office.” Sellars (a Santa Fe resident) went on to head the service’s Southwest Cultural Resources Center and retired in 2008 after 35 years with the agency. Pitcaithley, who actually began his career cleaning toilets at Carlsbad National Park, retired from NPS in 2005 after serving as chief historian for 10 years.
What did he most enjoy about that position? “It’s a bully pulpit,” he said. “I was the chief cheerleader for history in the Park Service. My job was to advocate for good history, whether in interpretation or management or planning or development, to make sure the scholarly historical voice was present.”
Pitcaithley discovered that NPS historians worked more often in cultural resource management than in interpretation, which meant that all the educational and interpretive programs didn’t necessarily have a scholarly base. When he became chief historian, he devoted himself to forging a partnership between
Left to right, Park ranger at entrance to the main building of Aztec Ruins National Monument, Neg. No. HP.2007.20.499; Jim White at the top of shaft that took the first tourists into Carlsbad Caverns, Neg. No. 177737; Ruins of Fort Union on the Santa Fe Trail, Neg. No. 055320; Park rangers at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Neg. No. 052059; all historic photos courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives