Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Director John Neary smiles outside the visitor center, May 3, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Director John Neary smiles outside the visitor center, May 3, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center director plans to retire

After 37 years of federal service, John Neary is calling it a career

John Neary’s June will be a lot like his May, but with a lot more freedom.

Neary, director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, is set to retire May 31 after 37 years of federal service.

Most of the 59-year-old Neary’s time was spent in or near Juneau, and he has held his current position for the past six years.

“I felt as if, I think I’d done my part,” Neary said during an interview. “The biggest motivation is that my wife had retired three years ago, and she wants to do various things, and I want to join her. Secondly, I’ve really enjoyed this job, and I think there’s other things out there for me, and I have not explored those things.”

He said he expects an interim director will be announced soon, and some time after that a search for a permanent director will begin.

Neary took some time on a recent Friday afternoon to talk about what and where he plans to explore, what drew him to his job and the most inexplicable bear behavior he ever saw.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the things you’re hoping to explore? I think folks like to picture what comes after that ride off into the sunset.

That ride off looks a lot like hanging out in Juneau, and really having the freedom of choice to do whatever. When you work full time, as you know, as everybody knows, you have to, regardless of the weather, go into the office, get into that meeting, do whatever that calls you. Whereas, now if the weather demands me putting my kayak in the water or climbing up to a peak, I’ll do it. If the fish are biting, I’ll go that way. It allows so much freedom that I just am hungry for.

Is there any bittersweetness since you won’t see the master plan implemented under your watch?

[Mendenhall master plan calls for major change]

Oh yes. This is what you learn in 37 years of federal service. If you’re a creative and energetic person, passionate about what you do, like I am, you learn to just put it in a bottle. Things are going to take twice as long. It’s going to be more time-consuming, more expensive than you ever thought, and that’s kind of what I did a while ago. I was hoping we would already be at the construction stage for some things at this time when I envisioned this process four or five years ago. On the flip side of that, it’s progressed reasonably well. It’s reaching a stage where it’s a positive one. It’s not at all negative. It’s just taking forever.

What drew you to federal service in the first place?

I grew up in the East. I was born in New York City and moved upstate. We had no federal lands that we ever visited as part of our lifestyle until our parents took us west and showed us all these wonderful national parks and forests. I just really fell in love with the wide-open west. I went to Colorado State University, and I got great introduction to what resource management is and wilderness management, and I just wanted to come to Alaska after that.

The Mendenhall Glacier. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

The Mendenhall Glacier. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Do you have an all-time favorite day on the job?

To characterize a favorite day would be one in which there are multiple things going on all at once, and I need to respond quickly to them. It requires good teamwork, fast decision-making, competency and confidence in what you’re doing. Equally as much, I love the slow times. I love the midwinter beautiful light on the glacier, where the sun is so low on the horizon that it’s casting these long, orange rays that are just making the glacier glow.

Has there ever been something you’ve observed where you thought, “No one is ever going to believe what I just saw?”

I once followed a large bear all the way up the East Glacier Trail. The whole time I was standing back far enough that I was not trying to rush the bear or corral the bear. This was a large animal that typically would not show that much patience and tolerance. I was following the animal because I was concerned people walking down the East Glacier Trail might come upon this animal and there might be an incident.

Three 2-year-old black bear cubs look hunt spawning sockeye salmon in Steep Creek at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Thursday, August 16, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Three 2-year-old black bear cubs look hunt spawning sockeye salmon in Steep Creek at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Thursday, August 16, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

At any moment, I expected it to veer off of the trail and head into the woods and be a bear, but it didn’t. Then, a group of chatty women came down, and I’m watching the bear approach them directly on the trail, but they never saw the bear. I’m trying to signal them by waving my arms, so as not to disrupt the bear, but they didn’t even look at me. This happened two other times in the course of the next 20 minutes. Then the bear, at one point, went past all those people and up at the switchbacks on East Glacier Trail decided to leave the trail, and before he left the trail, it turned around and just gave me one very long look. It was simply a long look as if to say, ‘OK, we’re done right?’

• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.

More in News

Meals slated for children in Juneau over Thanksgiving weekend are arrayed on tables at Thunder Mountain High School on Nov. 25, 2020. (Courtesy photo / Luke Adams)
Font of plenty: JSD readies meals for Thanksgiving holiday

Nearly three tons of food got distributed for the long weekend.

Travelers arrive at the Juneau International Airport on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, made up only about half of what the airport normally sees in the days leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)
Centennial Hall, seen here on Tuesday, Nov. 24, is being used by the City and Borough of Juneau as an emergency facility during the coronavirus pandemic and will not host the annual Public Market which has taken place every weekend after Thanksgiving since 1983. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)
Want to buy Alaskan? Closed by pandemic, Public Market goes virtual

Normally throngs of Juneauites would be lined up around the block…

To capture the unexpected action- the unrepeatable moment- it should be instinctive.  In order to build the story you have to shoot the adjective.  In this photo the bald eagle had waited patiently for the right moment to pounce on an unsuspecting vole… the unexpected.  The best way to accomplish this is to master the art of the most difficult subject to photograph– birds in flight.  In order to do this you must learn your gear; it must become part of your muscle memory so you can concentrate on the story you are witnessing.  Canon 5D Mark III, Tamron 150-600mm, shot at 600mm, ISO AUTO (1250), F6.3, 1/3200, Handheld. (Courtesy Photo / Heather Holt)
Focal Point: Great photos are just waiting in the wings

Learn to shoot the verb (and the bird).

Has it always been a police car. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Construction of the new Glory Hall, above, is going smoothly, said executive director Mariya Lovishchuk on Nov. 24, 2020. (Courtesy photo / Thor Lindstam)
Building a brighter future: New Glory Hall reaches skyward

The structure is rapidly progressing, shouldering aside inclement weather.

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Tuesday, Nov. 24

The most recent state and local numbers.

Most Read