I had been wanting to do a story on Peter Bruce for at least two years. His is the head of maintenance for the James River Park System — one of the Four Horsemen in charge of the city’s natural treasure. Park manager Ralph White, trails manager Nathan Burrell and educator Lorne Field round out the list of our river heros.
Ralph and I used to talk on a semi-regular basis about the history of the James, places and people and I’d often ask him for story ideas. He’d often jump at a chance to get his hard-working staff some good press.
When I was at Media General doing occasional stories for the expired Discover Richmond website, I struggled to get time to do a story on Peter. I didn’t want to give it just a quick “hello” — I preferred to volunteer with him or shadow him one day while he went about his business. That way, I could get in on the fun, work at the river and get a feel for what he does.
I ran out of time, and eventually had to change jobs. Now that I work for NBC12.com, I finally made the time and it was one of my first stories for the website. Turns out that I still had little time for the story and had to do it the easy way with a quick on-camera interview, which is passable, but not preferrable.
Peter is an impressive guy, and a total character. His scratchy voice made it hard to understand everything he said, but he was kind to repeat himself when needed. He knew he was on camera, so he hammed it up a little during the interview, but when the cameras were off, he was still just as entertaining and enthusiastic.
His duties are mainly trash, roadway maintenance, graffiti, grass, repairs, painting — whatever the park needs. The JRPS cares for more than 650 acres of park land, including 14 parks and many extra areas like the Manchester climbing wall, floodwall, the Slave Trail and Lumpkin’s Jail sites.
The key for me is his enthusiasm for the job. He’s been doing it for 12 years, hired on full time after Hurricane Fran in 1996. He is dedicated to getting people involved and spreading good will, with the river as his draw.
“At the end of the day, we thank the volunteers and they thank us, and you know, it’s just amazing how people love the James River.”
I went in to the story expecting Peter to tell me that the people that worked with him were just out of jail and needed to stay out of trouble by working with him — away from bad neighborhoods and bad influences. Turns out it’s not as impressive — he simply has people assigned to him that have to do community service for one minor infraction or another.
The message still comes off the same. He spoke glowingly of how many of those people often gain respect and love for the river, where they may not have had any positive experiences on the James. Poor people. People that can’t swim. People that don’t know how to appreciate outdoors.
“Spend a day in a positive atmosphere, helping the environment…Showing some skills – all depends on your sense of worth.”