For 12 Palm Beach County park workers, it’s an unusual job and lifestyle combination: living rent-free on park grounds.
For the county park system, it’s practical. The live-in employees open and close parks and are available for emergencies on nights and weekends. There are live-in employees at Peanut Island, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, an RV campground in the Glades, and at Okeeheelee, South County Regional, Jupiter Farms, Dubois and Gulfstream parks.
A few special skills are needed, including the ability to wield a machete.
Tom Dellinger, a parks employee for 25 years, was a district manager when the employee who lived at South County Regional Park west of Boca Raton moved to another assignment.
“I was out looking at houses when this opened up, and I said, ‘Hey, no mortgage. Let me take a demotion,” Dellinger said.
He might have to fix sprinklers that go off in the middle of a ball game and put out small fires in places where fire trucks can’t go.
The upside is the variety of wildlife that shows up at odd hours: foxes, bald eagles, armadillos, otters, alligators, owls, coyotes and a variety of snakes both poisonous and not.
“Once I saw a serval cat. It looks like a little leopard. It had to be somebody’s pet. It was sitting in my garage,” Dellinger said.
Dellinger’s house is made of standard concrete block, with a garage, a bedroom and an office.
“The sunsets are beautiful. It’s very well designed, but it’s a royal pain to maintain,” Dellinger said.
About 2 miles long, South County Regional Park includes 13 athletic fields, lots of grass to mow and bushes to trim, tennis courts, a water park, an amphitheater and a dog park. The park is also the site of an annual Fourth of July fireworks display and show.
Dellinger is in charge of all that, plus five other nearby parks and 18 employees who maintain them.
With all that beauty surrounding him, why ever go anywhere else?
“Honestly, I can’t look out my window without seeing work. Any time I go to an event, all I see is palm fronds that need picking up. So I go to Lake Okeechobee and visit my relatives.”
L.J. Margolis, Glades district manager, lives at the South Bay RV campground. She started as a music major and here, at the southeast tip of the legendary fishing site of Lake Okeechobee, she does not fish. But she loves the place for her own reasons.
“You’re in the heart of sugar cane and sweet-corn country. There’s nothing to do here but relax,” Margolis said.
She lives in a double-wide mobile home provided by the county, replacing an elderly one that did not meet hurricane standards, though she evacuates like everyone else when a hurricane threatens.
An avid reader, Margolis takes advantage of three county library branches that are nearby. She puts her music degree to good use as choir director at her church.
“I have to be on-site for emergencies and late-night arrivals, but those are just little inconveniences,” Margolis said. “I love it so much. I find it as tranquil as the campers who come here.”
Her wildlife experiences include rescuing a yellow rat snake that gets in trouble now and then. When she runs into the more formidable cottonmouths, she tries to move them. When she encountered one that wasn’t cooperating, she got her machete from the maintenance shed (she has another one in her house) and severed its head.
“I want to cause them as little pain as possible.”
She has no plans to leave her beloved post.
“The sad thing to me is that there are people on the coast who have never been to The Glades,” Margolis said. “They don’t realize what a beautiful area it is, what gracious people are out here.”
Jim Vaughn and his wife Kathy have been the resident caretakers of the county park at Peanut Island since 1999. They live in a one-bedroom, one-bath house that serves as home and office. Kathy Vaughn is a volunteer.
Peanut Island is 80 acres. The county park is only the perimeter of the island, which is also home to the never-used but still intact John F. Kennedy bomb shelter.
He takes the island’s weekend rowdies and the stranded pleasure boats in stride. The real challenge is groceries. He and his wife have developed a system that involves planning and coolers. That’s because every scrap of food they buy has to come to the island by boat.
“Except for that, the water is a plus, really,” Vaughn said. “We love being on the water. It’s more pleasurable than getting in a car.”
Groceries in, garbage out. Not just the Vaughn’s personal garbage, but all the garbage left by campers.
“You have to pick up the bag of trash in the mule, the utility cart, then to the boat,” Vaughn said. “Nothing is simple on an island.”
Kathy became a volunteer office manager at Peanut Island after retiring from BellSouth after 32 years.
Living and working together, on a tiny island, could be a formula for bickering.
“I know it may be difficult to believe, but we treasure our time together,” Vaughn said. “We don’t like being separated. When I retire, we’re going cruising together.”
Speaking of retiring, Vaughn is scheduled to leave his post – and unusual living quarters – this fall. Nature-loving job hunters, take note.