Addressing a crowd of onlookers at the “Groundmaking” ceremony for the Presidio Tunnel Tops in November 2019, a proud and reflective Michele Gee revealed stories about her personal touchstones to the Presidio and the parks.
Angel Island, through which her grandparents immigrated. Crissy Field, which she helped revitalize. The San Francisco National Cemetery, where her great-uncle is buried. And the Crissy Field Center, where she launched a career that led from managing youth programs for the Parks Conservancy to running one of the largest Interpretation and Education divisions in the National Park Service (NPS).
“From this perspective, we can appreciate how our national parks connect us with the beauty, history, and natural wonder of our country,” she shared at the ceremony. “Even more, how national parks can expand the vision of ourselves, our community, and our place in the world.”
She speaks about the transformative power of parks, especially for young people, from personal experience. Long before Michele donned the signature park ranger uniform, she was an adventurous Girl Scout, spending her early years in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood and later Orinda where her father designed and built a house.
“My friends from then make fun of me for becoming the ‘ultimate Girl Scout,’” Michele joked in an interview.
As a kid in the East Bay, she’d tag along with her mom to collect recyclables found along the roads. In her teens, she worked as a camp counselor and a Page in the U.S. House of Representatives for a summer.
While she always had an affinity for service, environmentalism didn’t become an area of focus for Michele until she studied conservation and land management in Australia before earning her degree in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Barbara.
After college, the Presidio was in the budding years of becoming a national park and her father suggested maybe she could get work there. Michele laughed him off initially.
“I was like, ‘yeah whatever, Dad,’” she said with a chuckle.
But in 1997, she landed a job working as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the San Francisco Conservation Corps and then manager for now-defunct program called “Youth in Action.” She also supervised an AmeriCorps crew to “change Crissy Field from an abandoned military airfield to a beloved parkland.” That introduced her to the Presidio, the Parks Conservancy, and our park family.
In 2000, she started at the soon-to-open Crissy Field Center. She arrived with the intention to empower youth to develop and run their own programs.
While at the Center, Michele managed the community advisory council, established the first youth development programs, and collaborated with organizations to create programs to engage with underserved neighborhoods. She helped build programs that are now staples of the Crissy Field Center like Inspiring Young Emerging Leaders (I-YEL), Urban Trailblazers, and Camping at the Presidio.
Michele was eventually promoted to Deputy Director, and the programs she helped develop, along with some of the people she initially hired, are still leading programs at the Crissy Field Center today.
“Michele has always been a huge advocate, not just for young people but inclusion and equity,” said Jessica Chen, Director for the Park Youth Collaborative, who was a program participant with the Youth In Action and one of Michele’s first hires. “It’s not always easy work, but her positivity is bountiful.”
In 2011, Michele was recruited to fill the position of the Chief of Interpretation and Education for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Her tenure is brimming with notable hallmarks. She’s grown her department by leaps and bounds. She worked with the Parks Conservancy and San Francisco State University to launch the Academic Internship Program that has given “hundreds of college students an opportunity to learn and grow in the parks (as well as push the parks to learn and grow).” She implemented a staff-led committee to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace and programming.
She also facilitated an ongoing partnership among the SF Public Library, NPS, and the Parks Conservancy, where the parks and libraries promote each other and encourage the community to visit both public institutions. The partnership is entering its fifth summer with StoryWalks and virtual events in 2020.
“Whatever visitors are learning, whether it’s about nature or about our history, we hope that they learn something new and it alters their perspective of the world and themselves,” Michele said.
Michele says it’s inspiring that she’s now charged with interpreting those transformative stories and experiences for national park visitors, including histories involving her own family.
While at Golden Gate she learned her great-uncle, U.S. Army Colonel Walter Takeo Tsukamoto, was buried in the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio. Colonel Tsukamoto served in the U.S. Army until 1961 in the Presidio and abroad, was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, and a recipient of two bronze stars. He also received the Legion of Merit Award posthumously. During his life, using his UC Berkeley law degree, he fought discriminatory practices against people with Japanese ancestry and he was elected National President of the Japanese American Citizens League. While a U.S. Army Reservist, he and 120,000 other Japanese Americans were imprisoned at American Concentration Camps (many of which are now national monuments). Despite the unlawful incarceration, he desperately wanted to show his loyalty to the U.S. and petitioned over and over until finally being placed on active duty. Michele has copies of those letters.
“All this deep-rooted history that I never knew, and to be a part of preserving and telling these stories—it’s special. I keep it right here,” Michele said, placing her hands over her heart.