Metro Parks Tacoma announcement.
Walking with Danny Patnode through McKinley Park is unlike any other walk through any other park, anywhere. For a start, it’s hard to imagine another park that has been so restored to life and so cared for by one person – up to six hours a day, some days. It’s also hard to think of another park where that caretaker is also the local folk artist and curator, with every turn of the path revealing another quirky or heartfelt sculpture in wood, stone or found objects. He’s also the local community magnet, pulling in those around him to care for the park.
But mostly, it’s difficult to imagine another park that has played such a part in literally saving its caretaker’s life. That’s the story of Danny Patnode, and to walk around McKinley Park with Danny is to hear, see and touch that story, all 18 acres of it.
“We just finished clearing all that 75-yard slope of invasive blackberry,” he says, stooping to pick up errant branches that dot the path after the last winter storm. “That was three dumptrucks full, myself and the other volunteers.”
As McKinley’s habitat steward, Patnode leads monthly work parties every third Saturday morning, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He’s actually here every single day of the week, anywhere from two to six hours at a time and often twice a day, either walking or with a little tractor full of yard tools. He mows, clears, trims, weeds, hauls out debris, lines trails with branches, warns off folks up to no good. He contacts Metro Parks when there’s serious maintenance or security issues, and the City when there’s an infrastructure need – like the stop sign that he just requested at the bottom of I Street.
“When I think of the term park steward, I think of Danny Patnode,” says Richard Madison, CHIP-In coordinator for Metro Parks. “His passion, dedication, and time caring for McKinley Park is almost unfathomable. Danny spends almost as much time at the park tending to its beauty as you and I spend at our full-time jobs. To see the continued legacy of those who came before him is truly amazing and the park is better because of it.”
In other words, Patnode lives and breathes McKinley Park – and the reason for that is literally life and death.
“I grew up playing here with my brothers,” remembers Patnode, who has lived in the hilly Tacoma neighborhood all his life. “It was paradise for a kid.”
It was paradise for kids a century ago as well. McKinley was one of Tacoma’s first parks, established in 1901 as East Park but soon renamed as a memorial following the assassination of President William McKinley. Crews worked to transform the steep slope of native trees, vines and ferns into a scenic landscape with paths, lawns and a spring-fed lily pond. A wading pool, playground and even volleyball courts were added in the 1920s.
But by the 1950s, fewer people were coming to McKinley. The facilities were removed, although Patnode remembers wide grassy lawns, perfect for kids.
Then came the freeway. As Interstate 5 was built to connect Tacoma with Seattle, it ate up four acres of the park and walled it off from downtown, creating a constant roar of sound and pollution.
Patnode and his friends kept playing – and partying – there, but McKinley’s fortunes faded. Over the decades the park went through rough times. Trails eroded, the underbrush grew up and homeless folks moved in. By the 1990s, it was a dangerous place to linger.
Life had also taken a downward turn for Patnode. In his 40s he fell deeper into drinking, depression and loneliness. His parents died, and in 2009 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer – given just months to live.
“In 2010 the doctors basically told me to start praying,” he says.
One morning, weighing 220 pounds and desperate not to die alone inside, he picked up a bucket and headed outside to pick up some trash. A man passed by in a gator utility vehicle, spotted Patnode and invited him to join in cleaning up the park.
That man was Larry Scheidt, a McKinley legend and park protector who invested decades of his life in daily care for the park and whose family is still active in the local community. In Scheidt, Patnode had found both a friend and a reason to keep living. Together they worked to rebuild trails, clear invasive undergrowth, clear the pond and restore the creek into a tranquil waterfall tumbling into a grotto below.
Patnode also started adding folk art features to the park – “park attractions,” as he calls them. He built towers of stones, arranged whimsical branch sculptures, installed “fairy doors” and birdhouses.
“See that?” Patnode points out, as we pause by the grotto. “That’s me and Larry.”
Two sculptures of trunk rounds, arranged snowman-style, stand sentinel amid the ferns.
And as the park came back from the brink, so did Patnode. He began spending hours each day in the park, gaining friends and hope and healing. He began going to a 12-step sobriety program, and began a daily ritual of leaning a hand against a certain branch in the park, releasing control of his destiny.
Other than a knowing patience deep in his eyes, Patnode now looks the picture of health and wellbeing – and so does McKinley Park. Dog walkers and families amble along peaceful paths, calling a joyful “Hi, Danny!” as they pass. A picnic table nestles in a glade that Patnode and Scheidt cleared of trash and overgrowth. Whimsical picture frames hang between trees in another glade, and Patnode poses inside one with a shy smile. As we walk he points out a log shaped like a dragon, an Earth globe hanging over the stream, reclaimed objects resting in tree forks, wooden signs saying “Breathe” and “Rest” made by one of Patnode’s volunteer helpers. A little rock is painted with pink flowers and “Thank you, Danny.”
“This park has helped me build friendships, a community,” he says.
And that, he says, is the secret of how connecting with the land can heal humans.
“Each day is different, each season is different, just like life itself. That’s what inspires me. It’s ever-changing. You just take one day at a time and do what you can, each day.”
What’s the one thing Patnode would want visitors to do when they come to McKinley Park?
“Enjoy themselves!” he says instantly, gazing out over the reflection of wintry trees in the glassy pond. “Just get outside and see this place for themselves. McKinley gets a bad rap, and people think the worst. But it’s beautiful.”
He stares up the hill to the place on the sidewalk where the City has placed a sign dedicated in loving memory of Helen Patnode – Danny’s mom.
“I sometimes stop and ask myself, how can a drunk down on his luck come to be in this position of responsibility for a whole park? My life is really blessed.”
DISCOVER: Visit McKinley Park at 907 Upper Park Dr, Tacoma or online at metroparkstacoma.org/mckinley-park/
VOLUNTEER: Help Danny Patnode care for McKinley Park at the monthly work parties, held every third Saturday. Sign up here.