Kenilworth Hero: Walter McDowney

written by Joe Lapp, aimed at a younger audience

Walter McDowney was born in Poolesville, Maryland. When he was nine, his family was one of the first families to move into the Kenilworth Courts public housing complex. He and his brothers loved their new place. Their family had to share a bathroom with other families where they lived before, but here they had their own bathroom and a brand new kitchen. Plus, there was the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens to play in, just across the street.

Walter loved animals and nature. For awhile he and his brothers kept a squirrel in the house. They called him “Speedy.” Walter also liked snakes and kept five of them in his room. When his mother found out, she said, “Either the snakes have to go or you have to go,” so he put them back outside where they belonged.

Walter and his brothers had lots of fun in Kenilworth. Sometimes they baked cakes and sold them to make money. Other times they went swimming or fishing in the river, then fried the fish and ate them. They often went to the Kenilworth Dump (Kenilworth Park is there now) and poked around in the trash to find toys or money. When the people at the dump started trying to keep them out, they found an old concrete
mixing pan, took it back to the river, and used it as a boat to float down to the dump without being seen.

When Walter was a teenager he got a summer job down at the lily ponds, as he called the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. He knew the place well since he had played there all his life, and soon he was giving tours to visitors. The park rangers liked him so much that they wanted him to come back. With the help of Mrs. Davis, a lady from nearby Eastland Gardens, he got a full time job as a ranger at the park.

Walter loved the park so much that he wanted to share it with neighborhood children. He and Mrs. Davis started a Junior Ranger program that taught kids all about the frogs and snakes and lilies in the ponds and the marsh. The kids started calling him “Ranger Mack.”

Walter’s love for the park also made him want to protect it. When people came to steal things and mess up the park, Walter found out who they were and told park officials. Even though he thought some people might dislike him for his stand, he knew protecting the park was the right thing to do.

Lots of people thought Walter was doing a great job in the park, and he received an award for being the best park ranger in the whole United States. It was called the Freeman Tilden Award. He was the first black person to win this honor.

Ranger Mack went on to work at Great Falls Park in Virginia and help people enjoy the beautiful Potomac River. But he always has a special place in his heart for the Anacostia River and its lily ponds in the Kenilworth neighborhood.

Walter McDowney showing a snake to Junior Rangers from Kenilworth. Photo by William Clark for the National Park Service, circa 1980, archives of Rhuedine Davis