By Jebb Johnson/The Daily Corinthian
CORINTH — It was supposed to be only a two- or three-year job.
Twenty-two years later, Shiloh National Military Park Superintendent Woody Harrell is finally getting ready to hang up his ranger’s hat.
When he was hired to oversee Shiloh in 1990, his supervisor told him to spend a few years getting his feet wet at the southwest Tennessee park, and then he would move on to management of larger sites.
“I never expected to stay this long,” he said, “but the community both here and in Savannah have been extremely good to work with, and there were a lot of opportunities to do things like the interpretive center that not many superintendents get a chance to do. That’s always been my biggest interest is interpretive facilities and those sorts of things.”
The National Park Service is expected to name Harrell’s successor at Shiloh and the Corinth Unit in the next couple of weeks. For many in the community, it is with reluctance that they will see him relinquish the park management in April upon conclusion of the sesquicentennial commemorations.
“I don’t really remember Shiloh without Woody Harrell,” said Kent Collier, president of Friends of Shiloh and chairman of the Tennessee River Museum board.
He learned of Harrell’s retirement plans a year ago.
“About two weeks ago it hit me that it was really happening,” said Collier. “It really makes me sad. It’s the end of an era. The only thing that keeps me from sobbing is the fact that they’re going to stay here in Corinth and are still going to be a valuable part of what goes on here and in Tennessee.”
Harrell is the longest-serving superintendent in the park’s history.
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., read a commendation of Harrell for his service as superintendent and as “a true scholar of the Civil War” on the U.S. Senate floor this past week. Family and friends gathered at the Corinth interpretive center Friday to wish him well.
Harrell grew up on the North Carolina coast, where the Park Service has a large presence. Summer jobs at one of the parks were hard to find, but he snagged an opportunity at Moore’s Creek while in college. After serving in the U.S. Army, he worked at Cape Hatteras.
His first permanent Park Service job was at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Other assignments included the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the Manassas National Battlefield Park.
At Shiloh, river bank erosion was one of Harrell’s early challenges. Funding became available for stabilization and for a study of the Indian mounds threatened by the erosion. He also worked on land acquisition to establish a buffer around Shiloh Hill.
Working on development of the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center was a welcome challenge.
“I think I’ve enjoyed working on the courtyard and the water feature more than anything,” he said. “That was one of the more difficult parts in planning the building.”
He wanted something deeper than some of the initial ideas, and the answer would come to him on Sept. 11, 2001.
“We were just starting the superintendent’s conference down in Miami,” Harrell said. “Twenty minutes later, everybody needed to get back home, and of course the planes were grounded for three or four days.”
The superintendents piled into a large passenger van “and began a whistle-stop tour of national parks all the way from Miami to Kentucky,” said Harrell.
“I took a fistful of number two pencils and a big legal pad and sat in the very back seat, and I’d scribble and write and tear it up and throw it on the floor and start over again.
I’m not sure where it came from, but by the time I got dropped off about 15 hours later, I had just about this whole concept of this 100 years of American history with stone and flowing water,” Harrell said.
He’s also very pleased with the new documentary film, “Shiloh: Fiery Trial,” which will be shown at the park visitor center, replacing the 56-year-old “Shiloh: Portrait of a Battle.”
“Everything that could possibly go right with that production has, and we’re real tickled with it,” said Harrell.
He will get to premiere the 49-minute film in his final days on the job.
While he and wife Cynthia look forward to retirement years in Corinth, they will continue to be frequent travelers. Harrell has been to 397 national parks and will hit the road to Georgia the day after retiring to begin an Appalachian Trail hike, allowing six months to reach Maine.
It promises to be a positive experience, maybe even life-changing — he hopes.
“Cynthia and I have been talking about hiking the Appalachian Trail for as long as we’ve known each other,” he said. “I joke to people that that’s one reason I have worked so long after being eligible for retirement.”