‘A great time in our life:’ Petaluman a steward of beloved Yosemite

It took serving a term in the notorious lockup of Alcatraz for Frank Dean to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.

But it wasn't a prison sentence that brought the Petaluma resident clarity. It was a job — his first out of college — as a park ranger, revealing for tourists the secrets held within the drafty cells of the San Francisco Bay penitentiary.

'I fell in love with the place,' Dean, 65, said. 'It just clicked and I found what I wanted to do. It was like 'this is the perfect fit.''

Thus began a four-decade career in the National Park Service, which took Dean, bedecked in khaki and olive, all around the country to some of America's most treasured outdoor gems. At the end of his public service, Dean took a job with Yosemite Conservancy, where he currently heads the nonprofit fundraising arm of his favorite national park.

Growing up in San Diego, Dean had a fondness for the outdoors and liked taking pictures of nature. He moved north to pursue a degree in geography from San Francisco State University. That's when he landed his first job as a National Park Ranger, sporting the wide-brimmed hat at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, including famous attractions such as Alcatraz, Muir Woods and the Presidio.

Working at the Bay Area park while earning a master's degree in public administration from University of San Francisco, Dean later transferred to Sequoia National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Yosemite, which proved foundational for his later private sector work.

Along the journey, he met Diane, a nurse practitioner. They married and had a son and daughter.

During a tour as chief ranger at Point Reyes National Seashore, the family lived in staff housing at blustery Limantour Beach, where Dean said they were able to spend four days on their seafront deck out of four years.

'It was pretty windy and harsh on the coast,' he said. 'Once the kids came along, we felt a little isolated and decided to move to Petaluma.'

Attracted to the temperate weather and scenic downtown, the Dean family bought a house west of Petaluma in 1999. They have stayed ever since, except for a seven year stint on the East Coast, where Dean served at the Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., and at Saratoga National Historical Park in New York.

The final post in his National Park Service career brought Dean full circle as superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, overseeing some of those young rangers starting careers on The Rock like he once did.

But it was the towering granite monoliths and majestic waterfalls of Yosemite National Park that etched a place in Dean's heart.

'All the parks are so unique,' he said. 'Yosemite was really a great time in our life.'

Weekends were spent skiing, hiking and playing softball on the National Park Service staff field at the foot of Yosemite Falls, with 'the best views from center field anywhere in the world,' Dean said.

Dean proposed to his future wife on a winter backcountry ski trip from the eastern Sierras to Tuolumne Meadows, where a fierce snow storm had them cabin-bound for a week. Finally, the weather broke on the night of a full moon, and the couple skied through the snow-covered meadow in moonlight that was bright as day.

As retirement age neared, Dean was approached by the Yosemite Conservancy, a group he had worked with in the National Park Service that happened to be in search of a leader. In 2015, he was hired as president and CEO of Yosemite Conservancy, where his experience working on the public side of the park fostered important partnerships.

'Frank has a deep understanding of and passion for Yosemite,' Philip L. Pillsbury, Jr., Yosemite Conservancy board chair at the time, said in a statement. 'His effectiveness with the National Park Service, park partners and nonprofit donor organizations, and familiarity with Yosemite Conservancy, made him an ideal choice to build upon the positive momentum generated over the years to provide support to Yosemite.'

Through Dean's leadership, the conservancy has been able to raise $15 million per year for Yosemite, continuing a philanthropic tradition that dates back to 1923. The nonprofit opened Yosemite's first visitor's center and has raised $119 million for more than 600 park projects over the past 96 years.

The nonprofit recently raised $20 million to complete a major restoration of Mariposa Grove, the largest strand of giant Sequoias in Yosemite.

Dean commutes from Petaluma to the conservancy office in San Francisco, but gets to Yosemite about once a month for meetings with donors or board members. He said the park's beauty helps sell donors on the need for conservation efforts.

'We augment the park budget and have a good track record,' he said. 'We want to make sure the park is always there. It's a pretty easy ask, we have demonstrated results.'

Despite political fighting that has paralyzed Washington and in the past shut down the government, Dean said both Democrat and Republican administrations have continued to fund the National Park Service.

'(Politicians) tend to leave parks alone,' he said. 'They know people love parks.'

The biggest challenge with a park like Yosemite is that it is perhaps too loved — increasing visitorship has led to environmental damage and traffic jams, especially in Yosemite Valley.

'In some ways, the park is better off than it's ever been,' Dean said. 'But with social media driving people to iconic places, we need to figure out how to spread out the visitors so it doesn't overshadow the experience. It's a 21st century challenge.'

(Contact Matt Brown at

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