More than 100 state park and other city officials gathered Thursday to say goodbye to Steve Wilson as he stepped into retirement after serving Woolly Hollow State Park for nearly 40 years.
Wilson began working at Woolly Hollow State Park in 1979 at 23 years old, serving as assistant superintendent. He served this role for many years before taking over as superintendent in 2013.
Looking back at the park's growth over the years, Wilson said he will eminently miss the community he's built such a strong relationship with.
"Watching Woolly Hollow grow has been like watching your children grow up [and] going through the different stages of their lives," he said. "We have a lot of returning visitors to the park. In my time, I have witnessed some of our visitors through three generations. The people would camp, then they would camp with their children and then with their grandchildren. Three generations of families enjoying Woolly Hollow."
Stepping down from the superintendent's position and into the world of retirement was a bittersweet moment for Wilson, he said.
More than 100 Arkansas State Parks and City of Greenbrier officials collectively gathered Thursday afternoon to say goodbye to Steve and thank him for the work he's put into the park over the past 39 years.
"We're all here to celebrate Steve," Matt Woodard, who will take over as the park's superintendent, said Thursday.
Wilson shares memories with several county residents who have visited the park through the years. In his time serving the park, he set four goals to continue the park's growth. As he steps down from his position, each of Wilson's four goals — adding a mountain bike trail, hiring a full-time interpreter, winning Region 2 park of the year and constructing a new visitor center — have notably been achieved.
Through the years, Wilson said Woolly Hollow has seen a great increase in campers and foot traffic, noting that when he was first hired on, the park didn't have nearly the attributes it does today.
"In 1979, there was not a whole lot at Woolly Hollow," Wilson said as he recalled his early years at the park. "Only a snack bar and a swim beach with very little camping. In 1980, we added an electrical campground and that is when the park started taking off. We have grown with new facilities through the 39 years I've been here. We added trails, a playground, an improved snack bar and swim beach."
By including an AAA campground in 2010, the park saw a jolt in visitation, Wilson said.
"We continued a steady growth up until 2010. At that time, we added a new AAA campground that changed the dynamics of Woolly Hollow," he told the Log Cabin Democrat. "We went from 20 electrical campsites to 30 fully serviceable campsites, and with that, we exploded."
Following that inclusion, park staff added the Enders Fault Mountain Bike Trail in 2014.
Prior to 2010, the park saw about 120,000 visitors annually. That number has steadily grown, Wilson said, noting the park saw 220,000 visitors last year.
Working at Woolly Hollow over the past 39 years was not just a job to Steve, he said. It was his lifestyle.
His family also embraced the park atmosphere that they called home.
"When you live in park housing, you become very intimate with all aspects of the park and park life," Wilson said.
Wilson and his wife, Lynn, have been married for 40 years. The two raised their daughters and adopted son at the park. Their daughters, Beth and Katie, were each married at the park.
Saying goodbye isn't easy
Wilson took the time to greet and speak with everyone who attended his retirement luncheon on Thursday.
Before the luncheon began, he walked out and had his photo taken in front of Lake Bennett — his favorite spot at the park.
"I really enjoy working with the kids, it keeps a person young," Wilson said. "My favorite place in the park is the swim beach. In the summer, you can hear the kids laughing and playing throughout the park. That is such a beautiful sound."
The family-friendly atmosphere offered at the park is also equally mirrored by the park's staff, Wilson said.
"Woolly Hollow has always been such a family atmosphere, not just for the visitors, but also for the people that have worked here," he said. "Each summer, we hire teenagers as lifeguards and other summer time workers. I enjoy the relationships I have made with these workers over the years. I love finding out their stories and have a genuine interest in them that carries for years after they no longer work at the park. Over the years, I have mentored many people and I have enjoyed every minute of it."
Stepping down from his position was a bittersweet moment, Wilson said Thursday, noting the park was a place he was proud to call home.
Over time, the park has become a part of his DNA, he said.
He and his wife shared stories with other state park staff from across the state on Thursday.
Wilson said he will miss his work family most as he steps into retirement.
"What I will miss the most about the park is the people I work with," he said. "The park has a great group of people that work here now and over the years. The people that work here are so loyal to the park and lover her as well."
Taking over Wilson's reign as superintendent is Matt Woodard, who has worked at the park as assistant superintendent for four years.
"With Matt as the next superintendent, the park will continue to grow and prosper," Wilson said.
Woodard said Wilson was an extremely dedicated man who poured his heart and soul into the park.
Stepping up into the role of park superintendent is an honor. However, Woodard said he could never fill Wilson's shoes.
"There was only one Steve Wilson," he said. "I will continue to carry on the principles and values he has taught me."