Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 19, 2013

Sand in his veins: Mountz has 38 years at Sleeping Bear

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — EMPIRE — Tom Mountz is the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s longest-serving employee.

He can’t think of one other place in the world he would rather work.

“The Dunes are firmly embedded in my subconscious,” said Mountz, now in his 38th year at the park.

Mountz first saw the dunes more than a half century ago as a 4-year-old — on a camping trip walking up the dune climb with a parent on each side.

“I vaguely remember the dunes and the Great Lakes and what a huge new world it was,” he said. “That first impression was big.”

As he grew older, that preschooler’s first impression morphed into a boyhood dream to work there one day.

Mountz grew up in Flushing, near Flint, the son of a teacher and General Electric sales rep. They loved to take their kids once a year on a camping trip to D.H. Day Park, which was still a state park then.

Mountz went on to graduate from Flint Junior College and then Northern Michigan University, earning a bachelor’s degree in conservation with minors in cartography and biology. He said he was “fortunate enough to get a seasonal job” at Sleeping Bear — just two years after Congress authorized the national park’s creation in 1970, following a decade-long contentious local, state and national debate over the transfer of private property to make a public park. He and other park employees repaired a lot of vandalism in those early years in addition to refurbishing many old structures and building and installing picnic tables, toilets and other amenities, he said.

Today, Mountz, a wood crafter, is maintenance supervisor of the 177-site Platte River Campground, river mouth and district, which spans 15 miles of park and shoreline from Empire to Sutter Road. The park will open for the season on Memorial Day weekend — a traditionally busy time.

“It’s huge because people are pent up all winter and people really want to get into the woods,” he said.

Mountz is a man of many interests. His curiosity and social consciousness extend far beyond the sprawling 111-square-mile national park that includes parts of Leelanau and Benzie County as well as North and South Manitou islands. During the Christmas season last year, he frequently could be found ringing the Salvation Army bell in front of Horizon Books in downtown Traverse City.

He hangs out once a month with the local — and only — chapter of Battle of the Bulge veterans in the state. The group has adopted him as an honorary member.

Mountz met his wife, Julie, in a pottery class at NMC in the 1970s. When they decided to marry in 1984, they asked the late Father Edwin Frederick, a longtime priest at the former Traverse City State Hospital, if he would perform the ceremony in All Faiths Chapel. Father Fred told them he would if hospital patients could come. They agreed and several attended.

Now Julie, a fifth grade teacher at Lake Ann Elementary, will retire in June after 28 years working in the Benzie Central Schools. They have two grown children, Maggie in Troy, N.Y., and Luke, who is studying physical therapy, also in New York.

Mountz won’t be joining his wife in retirement, however. He loves his job, though it’s evolved over the years.

For one, campers have changed, he said. In 1975, they generally were younger and camped in small tents.

“As the young folks got older, they had bigger tents, pop-ups, trailers and motor homes,” he said. “And today, people don’t spend as much time in the woods or exploring liked they used to 25 years ago.”

Some things are the same, though.

“I still see the exuberance of children when they spot a frog or an owl.”