Podcast Episodes

101 Years Apart

This past Wednesday, Grand Canyon National Park’s Interpretive Rangers lowered the flag in honor of one of their own. A ranger who lived and worked at the park for the past 20 years, and became a favorite of visitors from far and wide.

After forty-eight jobs in five states, Ron Brown found his calling as an interpretive park ranger. It was his wife Pat’s life long dream, in fact. “She’s one of those little girls who from five years old, when daddy took her traveling to national parks, she fell in love with it and wanted to be a park ranger all her life,” Brown told KPBS. “I was smart enough to know I wanted whatever she wanted.” Pat passed away in 2014, and Ron joined her just days ago, peacefully in his sleep at his home in Grand Canyon Village.

Ranger Ron’s popularity among Grand Canyon visitors was undeniable. His foot-long silver beard and boisterous voice were instantly recognizable, and his tours and interpretive programs beloved. He relished in the sound of thousands of visitors gasping at their first sight of the canyon daily. YouTube videos of his speeches are titled with words like “Favorite” and “Best” U.S. Park ranger.

One of the programs Ranger Ron was best known for was his portrayal of the tall-tale spinning “Captain” John Hance.

Many of the details of the life of John Hance are unknown, especially since his own oral history was less than reliable. But what is known, is that he was the first non-Native American to live at the Grand Canyon. It is believed he was born around 1840 in Tennessee, and he likely fought in the Civil War as a Confederate. He used the title “Captain,” though he was never actually made one. Hance improved an old Havasupai trail into the canyon and tried to mine for gold, silver, and asbestos. Very quickly, however, Hance found a more lucrative calling: guiding visitors coming to see the newfound wonder of the west.

As time passed and tourism grew, Hance became a legendary fixture of the canyon. Visitors making their way down the treacherous Old Hance Trail would be entertained by stories of how the old frontiersman had dug the canyon himself or how his horse Darby could cross the canyon from rim to rim by galloping atop banks of fog. As Hance himself would once say, “I’ve got to tell stories to these people for their money; and if I don’t tell it to them, who will? I can make these tenderfeet believe that a frog eats boiled eggs, and I’m going to do it, and I’m going to make ’em believe he carries it a mile to find a rock to crack it on.”

One early visitor declared that “To see the canyon only and not to see Captain John Hance, is to miss half the show.”

Here is the late Ranger Ron Brown as Captain John Hance:

According to a statement from Grand Canyon National Park, over his twenty years of service, Ranger Ron was “a teacher, a mentor to many rangers, and gave thousands of ranger programs to the visiting public. Working until just a week before his passing, he epitomized tenacity and devotion as an Interpretive Park Ranger.

Ron had the innate ability to connect visitors to Grand Canyon and help them find their own reason to love this place. He spent countless hours and devoted much of himself to coaching and encouraging new rangers to perfect his beloved craft of interpretation.”

Ron was one of only a handful of Interpretive Park Rangers to complete the rigorous Interpretive Development Program and accomplish all ten benchmarks. He also was the only Interpretive Park Ranger at Grand Canyon to receive the Interpreter of the Year Award twice.

Captain John Hance died in 1919, the year the Grand Canyon became a National Park. He was the first person buried in what would become the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery. The cemetery holds the stories of the great people who lived at the canyon — famous names from the park’s history, and tragic losses. The remains of 23 of the 128 people who died in the TWA-United mid-air collision over the Canyon in 1956 are buried at the cemetery. The collision took place in uncontrolled airspace, where it was the pilots’ own responsibility to maintain separation. From that tragedy came the development of the FAA and modern aircraft safety.

Ranger Ron gave tours of the cemetery, always ending up at his wife Pat’s grave. When she died from Cancer, he was allowed to choose a plot for both of them. He found the perfect spot, where twin pine trees grew together. Now, Ranger Ron Brown will be interred next to her. And he will be last person to be buried there, 101 years after John Hance, and in the 101st year of Grand Canyon National Park.

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