When Dorothy Shally Charles started working for the National Park Service, singing was a job requirement.
IF YOU GO
What: The History of Scotty’s Castle, Death Valley
Who: Dorothy Charles and the Maricopa Historical Society
When: April 2, 5:30 p.m.”
Where: Maricopa Public Library, 41600 W. Smith-Enke Road
How much: Free
“I told my boss I couldn’t sing. He said, ‘No, that’s what we do.’”
Still in college, Charles was a seasonal naturalist at Grand Canyon National Park in 1965. The naturalists told visitors what was going on, sang them campfire-style songs and then presented nature programs. Being a rookie, Charles was already petrified without suddenly learning she had to lead some songs, but she did it through the summer.
That job requirement, along with the dresses, low-heeled pumps and nylons necessary for female staff, eventually went away during Charles’ 25-year career. Besides Grand Canyon, her work took her to Badlands National Monument (which later became a national park) in South Dakota and Death Valley National Monument in California.
Her time specifically at Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley culminated in co-writing a book about the historic hacienda. April 2, she is scheduled to talk about Scotty’s Castle in a presentation to the Maricopa Historical Society.
Dorothy and her husband Kent Charles have lived in Tortosa since 2011. About a year after her introduction to the city, Dorothy Charles became an important part of the society’s archival work.
“I’d work with Dorothy on any project and know that it would be well organized and a project well worth doing,” said Joan Garrett, who has been a cohort in making sure the historical society’s assets are managed correctly for future generations.
Growing up the San Francisco Bay area, Charles credits her mother with her love of the outdoors. The family commonly did a lot of hiking and camping and spent summers with grandparents in the Sierras. When her father had his annual two weeks’ vacation from New York Life Insurance Company, he would drive up to meet them and take them camping at even higher elevations.
Dorothy’s first job was clerical work as a teenager for New York Life. While attending Humboldt State College (later university) majoring in outdoor resources, she started working summers at Grand Canyon, despite being uncomfortable with heights.
“When nobody was around I’d hang onto the rails,” she said.
Her work involved “point duty,” during which rangers were placed at locations along the rim where visitors typically parked. They would explain what they were seeing, direct them where they needed to go, pick up trash, butts and diapers and even have some latrine duty.
Charles was giving a presentation at Grand Canyon Village in 1969 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
“I had them bring me a radio, and the moon was coming up behind me, and we talked about this man walking up there on the moon,” she said. “I’ll always remember where I was then. It was sort of anticlimactic saying, ‘Well, now we have some nature walks you can go on.’”
In her early years at the canyon, she spent the winter months working at Death Valley National Monument. Her title was park technician.
National Geographic published a lengthy feature on Death Valley in its January 1970 issue. Dorothy can be seen in two of David Hiser’s photographs – one in her skirt and flats directing hikers in Mosaic Canyon and one bundled up and hiking through snow on Telescope Peak.
Her work in Death Valley included research and fact-checking to give visitors a true history of Scotty’s Castle. In 1973, she and maintenance leader William Bolton wrote the 40-page book “Scotty’s Castle,” published by Flying Spur Press.
The “castle,” which was under construction 1922-1931 and never quite finished, averaged 100,000 visitors a year before a devastating flood in 2015. It is not expected to reopen until 2020, so the closest most can get to understanding the unique hacienda is through books like “Scotty’s Castle.”
“We tried to not only make it fun but to tell the true story of Scotty’s Castle,” Charles said. “He had stuff brought over from Germany and Italy, Majorcan rugs throughout the castle made special for it.”
In his introduction, former Superintendent Robert J. Murphy said Dorothy “researched facts pertinent to the text or guide script; checked on paintings and other historical items in the Castle; interviewed former workers and visitors who know [Albert] Johnson and Scotty [Walter Scott], or knew of events at the Castle when they were living there. She also assisted in identifying and preparing items for shipment that were in need of restoration, as well as finding qualified specialists for the purpose of cleaning and repairing delicate Castle furnishings.”
That job description would come to sound very familiar to members of the Maricopa Historical Society 40 years later.
Dorothy’s career path changed when she met a new procurement clerk named Kent Charles in Death Valley during a “long, hot summer.” She married Kent in 1975 after she completed ranger school. She continued working with NPS part-time until they followed Kent’s career to Seattle for a year and then to Denver for 31 years.
She said her years at Scotty’s Castle peaked her interest in history. When the Charleses moved to Maricopa, she decided joining the historical society was the best way to get to know the background of the area.
At the time, Mary Lou Smith needed help putting together historical displays in the library. Dorothy Charles put her past organizational and display knowledge to use and was soon the MHS archivist, working closely with Judi Shirk and Joan Garrett, who calls Dorothy “absolutely one of the most organized people I have ever known.”
They gather, list, tag and organize items donated or acquired by the historical society.
“The listing of these items has been tedious but with the three of us working together and using Dorothy’s organized listings, it’s also been educational for us,” Garrett said. “We are pleased that the items that people have entrusted to us are now carefully listed and we know exactly where they are and all the information we have concerning each one. She never seems to tire and, with a little banter back and forth, the hours have flown by and we’ve accomplished more and more each week.”
Charles said her past work with NPS has helped her prepare information from the historical society, research and manage the collection.
“My background has helped with adapting to the desert and adapting to the things that need to be done with the historical society, which is also newer, so we were starting at the bottom,” she said. “So, I guess I like the challenge.”
This story appears in the April issue of InMaricopa.