So many people who grew up in San Diego establish a connection with Balboa Park early on that stays with them their entire life. Visitors Center volunteer Ron Oliver can actually trace his family’s connection to the park to a photo of his grandparents taken at the 1915 Panama California Exposition. Inspired by his early experiences, love of local history, and extensive civic engagement, Ron continues to share his love of Balboa Park and its rich heritage to the many visitors he greets inside the Visitors Center.
How long and in what capacity have you been volunteering in Balboa Park?
I’ve worked at the information desk for three years.
What got you interested in volunteering in Balboa Park?
I’ve said all along that when I retire I’m going to volunteer in Balboa Park. I was actually around to work on the very first Christmas on the Prado. It was a way to get people in the park after the old Electric Building (Casa de Balboa) burned down and was under reconstruction. So, after I retired, when I heard they needed volunteers for December Nights, I signed up for that, and that’s how I began doing volunteer work for the Conservancy. I was going to be a docent at one of the museums, but I like the whole park and not just the cultural center of the park. I like the recreational parts too: the two archery ranges, the disc golf course, and I love the Balboa Park golf course—it’s one of the most fun courses to play.
Tell us a little bit about your background?
I was born in San Diego and grew up in La Mesa, attending Lemon Grove Junior High School and Helix High School.
I started in construction out of college and worked as a foreman on the reconstruction of the Ford Building here in the park. But all the time I was in high school and college, I was very involved in politics. I was student body president at my college and worked on various political campaigns. So, after 13 years in construction, I was asked by a friend to work with him as a representative for the District 3 city councilmember’s office. After a couple other jobs, I was hired on as the president of the Central City Association, which I did for seven years, and then for six more years after the CCA became Downtown San Diego Partnership. In my last job, which I retired from, I was director of development at EDCO waste disposal. People would say to me at the time, you’ve been talking trash your whole life, now you get paid to do it!
I also served on the Balboa Park Committee for 25 years, and I was on the board of the San Diego Historical Society (now the San Diego History Center) and the San Diego Automotive Museum.
Growing up in SD, what is one of your favorite early memories of Balboa Park?
When I was in junior high school, the San Diego Museum of Art had the Young Art program, even back then, where they would have area school students submit artwork, and if the judges accepted it, it got displayed in the museum. One year my submission was accepted, so I can say I’ve had my artwork displayed at the San Diego Museum of Art!
Is there anything about you that would surprise most people?
I was born and raised racing sailboats on Mission Bay. So I’ve done a lot of sailing!
Tell us something most people don’t know about Balboa Park.
I like how you can find almost any activity in Balboa Park: chess, horseshoes, Frisbee golf… Also, I believe we have the largest collection of museums in one location anywhere outside of the Smithsonian. The activities you can participate in here are so varied. I can’t imagine someone coming to the park and not finding at least one thing they enjoy seeing or doing. I also like to tell people about the little “pocket parks” within the park that most people don’t realize exist.
What is your favorite season or time of year in the park and why?
Early fall. The park is less crowded and the foliage is still green. I also like the many nighttime activities. One of the best things to happen here is Panama 66. On a Friday or Saturday night the line is out the door! Food Truck Friday is great too!
If someone has only a couple of hours to spend in the park, what do you recommend they do?
I tell them to walk down to the Museum of Man and look at the façade, and then walk back up the Prado. I point out things for them to look at along the way and explain some of the history, like the Spreckels Organ being the largest outdoor organ in the world, the Botanical Building, the outdoor sculptures, the Zoro Garden, and so forth. And I have their walk end up in the Rose Garden. It’s only a 12-minute walk without stopping, but with so many things to look at, it can take a full two hours.
What is the most interesting/unusual thing you’ve encountered while volunteering?
There’s just so many interesting things in the park. It’s just so invigorating to hear the enthusiasm of visitors. Some come in saying things like, “I can’t believe you have this in the center of your city!” It just warms my heart to hear that.