The Conservancy is grateful for the service of more than 60 dedicated volunteers, who go out of their way to enhance the experience of 500,000 visitors to the Balboa Park Visitors Center each year. One of these volunteers, Don Spangler, has made service to his community his life’s work. We spoke with Don, who is also a volunteer service dog trainer for K9 Guardians, to learn more about his three decades’ worth of experience in the park.
What got you interested in volunteering in Balboa Park?
I worked in the park as an electrician for the city for 28 years, so I know the park pretty intimately—inside and out. I retired in 2010 and started volunteering in the Visitors Center almost immediately after that. It’s really a privilege to work in the Visitors Center. I get to meet people from all corners of the world, all nationalities, and they are all here to have a good time. I get to tell people where to go—legally.
What do you tell people when they only have only a couple of hours to spend in the park?
It’s hard because there are just so many places and things to do here in the park. But usually I tell them to visit the Timken Museum of Art, which has the Russian icons and a Rembrandt and is free; the Botanical Building, the largest wood lath structure in the world; the Spanish Village Art Center; and then out to the gardens on the other side of Park Boulevard.
Tell us something most people don’t know about Balboa Park.
A lot of people don’t realize that the Spreckels Organ Pavilion is the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world (until recently, it was in second place). And people’s eyes really light up when they hear about the Model Railroad Museum and its 27,000 square feet of exhibit space—and it will never be finished!
Tell us a little bit more about your background.
I grew up in Pennsylvania and moved out here in 1976. Working as an electrician for the City of San Diego’s General Services, Facility Maintenance department, I was responsible for maintaining the lighting and the integrity and safety of the electrical power systems throughout Balboa Park. I loved the park; I was so fortunate to be able to get this duty. Surprisingly, nobody else wanted it at the time, and since I was the low man on the totem pole, I got it! My biggest job here was overseeing the rewiring of the Organ Pavilion’s electrical systems, which took seven years. We put enough power in there so they can do pretty much anything now without bringing in outside generators.
Is there anything about you that would surprise most people?
Everyone knows I train dogs; I’ve been doing that for quite a while. But about six months ago, I began working with the nonprofit organization K9 Guardians to train German Shepherds to become service animals for returning US military veterans who have physical disabilities or are dealing with emotional traumas, such as PTSD. It’s just so important to support our veterans.
I’m also a beekeeper with the San Diego Bee Society, so I rescue bees who are in dire need of help. I do some work for San Diego Fine Woodworkers, making high-quality toys to give away to children in military families. I bring therapy dogs into the VA Hospital on behalf of Love on a Leash, a national organization. And every March I become a Thursday Club member, setting up the power for their annual rummage sale. I work harder now than I ever have. My mantra has always been “be of service to my community.”