The photograph of my parents, Gene and Betty Kingman, taken amidst the natural wonders of Mesa Verde National Park, foretells a love story that lasted 39 years.
My dad, Eugene Kingman, was a prolific artist drawn to the beauty of the American West. During the Great Depression he travelled from his home in Providence, Rhode Island, to capture on canvas the scenic treasures of the national parks.
My mom, Elizabeth Yelm, was a ranger and museum assistant at Mesa Verde at a time when few women worked for the National Park Service. Mom absolutely loved her job and I am ever proud of her for applying again and again until she finally landed it!
She was a bright, strong-minded woman who received a scholarship to study Anthropology at the University of Denver. She appeared in “Who’s Who” as one of the first women there to earn a Master’s degree.
Mom and Dad met on one of her guided tours of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. According to Mom, it was her storytelling around the campfire that led Dad to fall in love with her. When she resigned from her ranger job a year later to marry him, all of her park colleagues (mostly men) signed her ranger hat.
Over the years Mom and Dad forged an exceptionally strong partnership. Mom valued immensely Dad’s artwork and kept a record of every painting, lithograph, and mural he created, as well as his designs for museum exhibits—his specialty.
Dad earned degrees in Fine Arts and Geology at Yale that combined with a fascination with the national parks, led to some extraordinary assignments. Horace Albright, the first director of the National Park Service, commissioned him to paint seven of the most popular national parks—Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, Sequoia, Grand Teton, and Mt. Rainier—for the 1931 Paris Expo. Dad’s spectacular plein air oil paintings of Old Faithful and Grand Teton are part of the permanent collection at the National Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Improving national parks and promoting tourism were among the New Deal’s efforts to grow the economy. In March 1937, The National Geographic published thirteen of Dad’s Yosemite and Crater Lake paintings to illustrate an article on how these parks evolved geologically over millennia.
During the New Deal, Dad was awarded commissions for post office murals in Kemmerer, Wyoming; Hyattsville, Maryland; and East Providence, Rhode Island.
After serving as a cartographer in WWII, he became the director of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, and stayed for 22 years. He then got hired as Director of Exhibit Design and Curator of Art at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where he passed away in 1975.
After Dad died, my mom moved to Santa Fe. She worked with archeological scholars at the School of American Research well into her 80s.
Whenever I look at the cherished photo of my parents at Mesa Verde, I conjure up the campfire that sparked my parents’ lifelong romance. I’m not sure why Mom isn’t wearing her ranger hat in the picture. That hat meant a lot to her. In fact, I wore it during her memorial service in 2005 when we sang one of Mom’s favorite tunes: “Happy Trails to You.”