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From accountant clerk to park ranger – Gillis hangs up 31-year career

By Heather Graves

BROWN COUNTY – One week – Dan Gillis said it took him one week to realize an accounting career was not a good match.

“I have a two-year associate’s degree in accounting,” he said. “I got an accounting job for one week, sat behind a desk – still can’t believe that is what I thought I wanted to do. When I worked at a desk for a week, I was like, ‘What have I done?’ I don’t know why I went into accounting.”

This hiccup in career choice, he said, led him toward pursuing another passion – working in nature.

While attending school, Gillis worked part-time for the Brown County Parks Department, and when a full-time position became available, he said he easily made the switch.

He said not only has he enjoyed working amongst nature over his three-decade career, the interactions he was able to have with the public was also a high point.

“When you work at Bay Shore, you’re constantly dealing with the public and helping people out,” he said.

Gillis said as a long-time member of the parks department, there is a common mindset that “you go where you are needed,” which included a stint as a zookeeper at the NEW Zoo.

“Now, the zoo is separated from the parks department, but back then we were all kind of the same,” he said. “So I worked winters as a zookeeper.”

Over the years, as workload and budgets changed, Gillis said he found himself filling in within the county wherever he was needed.

“(At one point) the parks department’s budget didn’t have the money to pay four of us in the parks department, but the highway department had openings,” he said. “So for like three winters we went over to the highway department and filled those positions. So, I plowed snow for the highway department for three winters.”

Gillis ended his career as a park ranger at Bay Shore Park, but said he worked at locations throughout Brown County during his 31 years on the job.

“I worked at a lot of the different parks, the fairgrounds, the reforestation camp and Pamperin Park,” he said. “So, you kind of do it all when you work for this department.”

Cherished roles
Though not a deer hunter himself, Gillis said he found himself spending much of his time working at the county’s rifle range helping hunters sight in their rifles.

“I always tell my wife that I do my part in controlling the deer herd, because I work at the rifle range every year,” he said. “I learned on the job. I didn’t know it when I started. I didn’t know too much about guns, but the more I worked out at the rifle range, you know, you picked up on it and next thing you know, I’m adjusting people’s guns and helping them.”

Gillis said it was a staple part of his fall routine.

“We did it for like three weeks in late October through the middle of November before the season started, and I really enjoyed that,” he said.

Over the years, Gillis said it became one of his favorites aspects of his job.

“(I enjoyed) working with the people, swapping stories, well, I didn’t really have any stories, but they would tell me their stories,” he said. “That was always fun, because I got to know the same people every year, they’d come back. This year, I can’t even imagine they’re gonna say ‘Hey, where’s the old guy?’ Because they always looked for me when I was there, because I put in a lot of hours at the rifle range.”

Gillis said he also enjoyed his time as a zookeeper.

“I probably never worked harder than when I was a zookeeper,” he said. “The days flew by. Because there was just so much work to do. There were a lot of animals that you had to feed and some of those days I couldn’t believe how fast our day went when I was a zookeeper.”

Gillis said one time he was able to bring his family behind the scenes at the zoo and show them what dad does all day.

“I showed them how I feed the lions,” he said. “I have two boys, and they were small, and they were just in awe seeing how hungry the lions were.”

As a park ranger at Bay Shore, where Gillis said he spent most of his career, the duties varied depending on season and need.

“I was in charge of maintaining the whole park from grounds work to the boat landing,” he said. “When you’re a park ranger in this department, you’re doing it all. I’m not immune to cleaning bathrooms. There’s days I have to clean the bathroom. A lot of night shifts. I worked every other weekend night shifts. So that’s one of the reasons my wife pushed me to retire. For some reason, she wants me around.”

Onto the next chapter
As Gillis clocked out on his last day, he said he was excited, sad and nostalgic.

“When I cleaned out my locker, I realized this was it,” he said. “The department threw me a retirement luncheon. I actually had a manager that left two years ago and he has since moved to Florida, and he came over, so that was really neat. There were quite a few people that were here. So that was tough.”

Gillis said the hardest part about leaving the parks department is his coworkers.

“That’s been the best part, just the people that I have worked with in the past and that are still here,” he said. “That was probably the toughest part of leaving. Everybody that works for the parks department has been so great to work with.”

Of course, Gillis said he had thoughts on whether it was the right time to retire.

“Because I’m not that old,” he said. “You always wonder if I should have stuck around longer. But you know what, 30 years and you get a pension and I can now work part time somewhere and still have the same income as I do. So, I said to my director, it was kind of a no-brainer.”

Gillis said his next path includes working as a part-time valet for St. Vincent’s Hospital.

“What I like most about this job is just working with people,” he said. “It won’t be as many weekends, which is going to be strange and not as many hours.”

Gillis said he plans to use his extra time getting back to fishing.

“I used to be a big fisherman way back, and I’m gonna get back into fishing now that I have a lot more time,” he said.

Gillis said he also plans to spend more time with his wife Mary.

“We like to travel,” he said. “And we have spent a lot of time on patios on the weekend with a band, so I’m sure we’ll have no trouble filling the time.”

Gillis said he and his wife will also spend time with their two adult sons, as they anxiously await grandchildren.

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