On January 2, 2021 our friend John Anfinson, Superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), is retiring after a 40-year career with the federal government. A native Minnesotan, John grew up in Benson, MN, and attended the University of Minnesota where he earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. all in History. John started with the Army Corps of Engineers in 1980 and joined the National Park Service in 2000. Longtime park historian, John succeeded Paul Labovitz as Superintendent in 2014.
It was his time at the Corps of Engineers that caused John to fall in love with the Mississippi River. As Chief of Cultural Resources he learned the story of the river, and relished in discovering the history of places such as the Meeker Island Lock and Dam, just north of the Lake Street / Marshall Ave. bridge. Completed in 1907, this dam flooded the rock-strewn river bottom up to St. Anthony Falls, allowing steamboats to access Minneapolis.
Widely considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on the Mississippi River, Dr. John Anfinson has accomplished many things during his long career. John wrote many articles about the Mississippi River, including a landmark book entitled, “The River We Have Wrought: A History of the Upper Mississippi.” He was among the first to alert Minnesota of the dire effects of invasive carp coming up the river from Arkansas. With solid science and visions of silver carp erupting pell-mell in boat traffic, John’s work led to a coalition of non-profit organizations that played a critical role in closing the St. Anthony Falls Lock. Not only did this save Minnesota’s lake country from these invasive species, it forever changed the Twin Cities riverscape and opened the way for multiple revitalization projects along the Mississippi.
Those who know John would agree that he is modest about his many accomplishments. Former MNRRA Superintendent Paul Labovitz commented, “John was always even keeled, and a true gentleman. He’s very thoughtful, and his decision making is always purposeful. There’s nobody alive that knows more about the Mississippi River than John Anfinson.”
Another colleague, Lyndon Torstenson, said, “John has his ‘missionary’ pitch. He loves to talk about the river and the park. He never seemed to tire of it because he understands the subject to be so utterly urgent and relevant. It’s the value of environmental history that informs him, and that he has shared so well. His passion, knowledge and ability to relate to an audience make him the best river educator I know.”
Personally, I remember John’s willingness to help out and be there whenever asked. He always returned a phone call, and he never hesitated to help. For several years he drove the National Park Service pontoon as a safety boat during Wilderness Inquiry’s Great River Race. We would meet for coffee at dawn on the river and go over plans while watching the mist rise off the water. John would ferry VIP’s and photographers as dozens of Voyageur Canoes paddled past.
When asked what advice he had for the next Superintendent, John said, “Don’t be an introvert. Get out and talk to people.” MNRRA is not a traditional park, it is a park built on partnerships and every Superintendent needs to embrace that. He also commented on taking risks. “I’ve learned over my years as Superintendent, that it is better to say yes than no to the creative ideas of my staff. When people first brought me ideas, my initial reaction was to say no. But the more I said yes, the more it paid off. We need to dare to say yes and take some risks.”
John went on to say that Wilderness Inquiry (WI) is one of MNRRA’s top program partners. “We could not reach the young and diverse audiences we do without WI. MNRRA has the 2nd most youth engaged of any National Park in the Midwest Region, largely thanks to WI. We are creating future stewards, future advocates, and future staff. WI allows us to tap the potential for what we are able to do. That’s why I am so excited about our partnership at the proposed River Learning Center in St. Paul.”
John does play golf, but he is not retiring for more tee time. He’s looking forward to a time when he can dive more deeply into things and get back to his roots as an environmental historian. He also plans to advocate for the River through the Mississippi River Parkway Commission and the Friends of the Mississippi River.
Oh, and the Snickerdoodles? A recent letter to the editor in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune described the famous Snickerdoodle cookie recipe which was handed down through the “Anfinson Family.” When asked, John said “I don’t normally read the letters to the editor, but I couldn’t miss the word ‘Snickerdoodle’ in the title. Fun story, although I must admit, my mother didn’t develop the snickerdoodle; it was an old family recipe she brought to Betty Crocker when she worked there right out of college.”
We wish our kind, talented, and accomplished friend John Anfinson well in his future endeavors and we look forward to more time with him on the river we love. For more on John check out this excellent blog on the Mississippi Park Connection’s website: https://parkconnection.org/blog/2020/nps-superintendent-retires-after-20-years
Story by Greg Lais