National Mall

National Mall

Manus 'Jack' Fish, 81, dies; led National Park Service work

March 5, 2010, 7:48 am

Credit: National Park ServiceManus "Jack" Fish, 81, the National Park Service regional director who oversaw the heavily trafficked National Mall, expanded the Civil War battlefield at Manassas and supervised the planting of 150,000 trees and millions of flowers in the parks and byways of greater Washington, died after a stroke Feb. 27 at Heritage Hall nursing and rehabilitation center in Leesburg.

Mr. Fish led the Park Service's complex and diverse National Capital Region, whose holdings include historic memorials, the 185 mile-long C&O Canal, an urban sports complex, Civil War battlefields, the White House and two major highways. His office granted 1,000 permits a year for demonstrations including a one-person crusade for "husband liberation" as well as the hundreds of thousands who gather for the Fourth of July celebrations between the Capitol and Washington Monument. He was the regional director from 1973 to 1988 after working three years as the deputy.

A diplomatic and unflappable engineer, Mr. Fish worked for the Park Service for 36 years, based the entire time in Washington. He helped design playground swings and the Roosevelt Bridge and became a regular presence on Capitol Hill, either appearing at hearings or reassuring his hundreds of Congressional bosses that, yes, he was dealing with the timing of lights on Spout Run at George Washington Parkway or trying to resolve who would pay for a leaking roof at the Kennedy Center.

"I've got to study issues in detail," he told a Washington Post reporter in 1978. "And I guess I like that. If I didn't, I'd have ulcers and high blood pressure."

His nighttime studying was done in a household of a dozen children, with television, radio, stereos and phone conversations swirling around him. His wife of 58 years, Rosemary Fish, was "kind of a short-order cook," he joked, adept at managing the comings and goings of the brood.

In addition to his wife of Ashburn, survivors include 12 children, M. John Fish of Herndon, Theresa Grooms of Leesburg, Mary Ann LaRock of Gambrills, Joan Rowe of Irmo, S.C., Peter Fish of Huntsville, Ala., Christine Behrmann of Troy, N.Y., Helen Kokolakis of Falls Church, and Kathleen Key, Rosemary Burke, Brigid Powell and Bernadette Ishmael, all of Ashburn; a brother; a sister; 42 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

After leaving the Park Service in 1988, Mr. Fish worked for 10 years as vice president at the West Group, a local real estate developer, and was chairman of the Parks & History Association, which operates 25 bookstores in the national parks. He also served on numerous boards and was a member of St. Theresa Catholic Church in Ashburn.

A native of Trenton, N.J., Manus John Fish Jr. moved to Washington as a youth and graduated from St. John's College High School. He served in the Army in Korea between World War II and the Korean War, then returned to Washington and graduated from Catholic University with a degree in engineering. He began working for the Park Service in 1952, reporting to the stone engineer's office near the Washington Monument.

In pursuit of his duties, he rode in countless parades, mastering horseback riding in two days in order to accompany a member of Congress on a tour of one of the parks, and learned to iceskate overnight when a skating rink opened on the Mall. "I was able to stay on the horse, and I kind of skated on my ankles," he told a Post reporter in 1988.

He also managed 3,000 employees and oversaw an annual operating budget of $100 million. During his tenure, Constitution Gardens and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened on the Mall; handicapped-accessible entrances were added to many memorials, and Wolf Trap's Filene Center was rebuilt. It was his decision to close Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park to vehicles on weekends and holidays, to close and grass over two streets on the Mall and to eliminate nine holes from a 36-hole golf course in East Potomac Park to expand an adjacent softball field, a decision that did not stand under fierce protests from golfers.

He made maintenance and preservation a priority and struggled for additional appropriations for repairs, which forced him to reduce grass cutting and put off hiring Park Police officers. He received the Interior Department's Distinguished Service Medal for guiding the expansion of the parks, especially during the 1976 Bicentennial year.

"There remains much to be done," he said upon his retirement.

So long did he hold the politically sensitive "fish-bowl" job that he, too, is memorialized. If you're at the Tidal Basin next month when the cherry blossoms bloom, take a look at the Ohio Drive bridge. You'll find some gargoyles sculpted into the stone. The fish creature is a caricature of the Park Service's Mr. Fish.