KEARNEY – Gene Hunt’s weekday mornings usually start at 7:30 with a short drive in his Nebraska Game and Parks Commission pickup from his house at the Fort Kearny State Historical Park entrance to the shop.
He feeds the shop cat and tunes the truck radio to a local station’s morning talk show. On this mid-August morning, he pauses to pick wild plums for a later-in-the-day snack.
Next, a brief stop at a farmstead east of the park and Fort Kearny State Recreation Area to check raccoon traps set in rows of blue corn that Hunt is growing for the Pawnee Seed Preservation Society.
“These were among the gardening tribes,” he says, “so they were more settled in the villages.”
Hunt has grown Pawnee Spotted-Like-a-Horse beans, Omaha pumpkins, Mandan squash and Arikara melons for years. Most of his work in Native gardens, though, is done when his official workday ends at 4 p.m.
After checking the traps, Hunt heads to the 230-acre state recreation area to collect self-registration and payment envelopes from a locked box.
He drives around to check vehicles for the required permits, then heads back to the historical park to sort the payments and review phone messages and emails.
One hour in the books.
“I had no thought of being a state park superintendent,” said Hunt, now one of Game and Parks’ longest-serving employees.
The 1966 graduate of Arcadia High School liked to fish, hunt and farm, but his farmer dad insisted that he and his brother Darwin attend college.
Two years into a biology degree at Kearney State College, he married his high school sweetheart Nellie, who by then worked at Kearney’s West Company.
“So she actually put me through school,” he said.
Hunt began working at the state’s Windmill Wayside Area south of Gibbon in 1969. He’s worked for the Nebraska Game and Parks, either full time or part time, ever since.
Two years after graduating from Kearney State in 1970, Hunt was named Fort Kearny State Park assistant superintendent. He was promoted to superintendent in 1982.
The biggest change he’s seen during those 51 years: A huge increase in visitors during the sandhill cranes’ annual spring migration stop in the Central Platte Valley.
“It’s during crane season when folks come here from across the United States and around the world. They have lots of stories,” Hunt said.
Hunt is focused now on an Oct. 7 event to honor the Pawnee Scouts’ 1864-1871 U.S. military service at Fort Kearny. It’s a recognition he believes is long overdue.
He also is active in Oregon Trail and Pony Express history organizations. Hunt hosts a breakfast at Fort Kearny, once a Pony Express home station, for participants in an annual June re-ride across Nebraska.
“I need to know the history of the park and meet other people who know that history or have other interests. So it gets to also be a socializing situation,” he said.
Hunt splits his time between Fort Kearny and a farm northwest of Arcadia that Nellie’s family homesteaded in 1884.
Nellie has retired and moved back there. Daughter Chris manages the property and raises a growing herd of cattle. Older daughter Dori lives in North Carolina.
Hunt said the farm has 200 acres of cropland and pasture. He and his brother co-own and rent Hunt family farmland and two houses – one rural and one in Arcadia.
Hunt still likes to fish and enjoys black powder deer hunting. He serves as a hunting guide for Deer Meadow Outfitters in northwest Nebraska.
Work to Do
Fort Kearny’s other full-time employee is assistant superintendent Joe Blazek.
Anywhere from eight to 11 people work from Memorial Day through Labor Day, staffing the Fort Kearny permit booth and the visitors center. Hunt and his team also maintain three state recreation areas: Fort Kearny, Sandy Channel south of Elm Creek and Union Pacific south of Odessa. (Correction: This story incorrectly described the location of the Union Pacific State Recreation Area in relation to the town of Odessa. It has been corrected.)
Hunt’s day-to-day work often includes picking up trash, cleaning restrooms and making repairs.
On that mid-August day, he found an abandoned trash-strewn campsite in the Union Pacific area. There was no tent or sleeping bag – only blankets and pillows on the ground, clothes hanging from bushes and trees, and enough trash to fill a 30-gallon bag.
Hunt turned the situation over to a Game and Parks conservation officer who has law enforcement and investigation responsibilities.
Hunt spent the early afternoon working on timecards with his immediate supervisor, Laura Rose. Before becoming his boss as a regional superintendent, Rose worked for Hunt at Fort Kearny for 17 years.
“A lot of stuff I learned was how to do events on a state level,” she said about her earlier years working for Hunt. “And how to work in the community. We know lots of people in the Kearney community, and he took me to a lot of meetings.”
Hunt never planned to stay at Fort Kearny so long. “Oh, no,” he said.
As for when he might retire, that’s less certain.
“Let’s put it this way,” Hunt said with a smile, “I’m already making plans for Fort Kearny events for next year.”
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