The Woman Who Says When D.C.’s Cherry Trees Bloom

Chatherine Dewey is the cheif of the devision of resources managemennt at the National Mall.
Chet Susslin
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
June 19, 2015, 1:02 a.m.

It is a sunny Tues­day in East Po­tom­ac Park, and Cath­er­ine Dewey and I are vis­it­ing a tree. It’s a slim, feath­ery Okame cherry, the only one of its kind in the area. Dewey is the new chief of re­source man­age­ment for the Na­tion­al Mall and Me­mori­al Parks unit of the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice, and she and nat­ur­al-re­source spe­cial­ist Mary Wille­ford Bair are dis­cuss­ing the fine art of pre­dict­ing the win­dow of peak bloom for Wash­ing­ton’s an­nu­al cherry-blos­som fest­iv­al — a high-stakes bit of pro­gnost­ic­a­tion. Tour­ists plan costly va­ca­tions around the event, and if the pre­dic­tions are even a few days off, hun­dreds of thou­sands of vis­it­ors will miss the phe­nomen­on en­tirely. To come up with the cor­rect dates, the team re­spons­ible re­lies on this single tree — the first cherry that blooms in the park. The “in­dic­at­or tree” flowers a full sev­en to 14 days ahead of the Yoshino cherry trees at the Tid­al Basin, and that in­form­a­tion, coupled with the an­ti­cip­ated tem­per­at­ures, provides the team with all the data it needs to make the im­port­ant an­nu­al es­tim­ate.

Cath­er­ine Dewey is the chief of the di­vi­sion of re­sources man­age­ment at the Na­tion­al Mall. (Chet Suss­lin)Dewey tells me she is learn­ing a lot from team mem­bers like Wille­ford Bair about their re­spect­ive areas of ex­pert­ise — some of which are a far cry from her own. Be­fore be­com­ing act­ing chief of re­source man­age­ment in Au­gust 2014, Dewey was the his­tor­ic-ar­chi­tec­ture pro­gram man­ager for the Na­tion­al Cap­it­al Re­gion­al Of­fice of the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice, where she did pro­ject man­age­ment and “hands-on pre­ser­va­tion work” for roughly 800 statues and build­ings. Dewey, 43, still does some monu­ment pre­ser­va­tion in her cur­rent role, which she took on of­fi­cially in April. But she also re­ports to the su­per­in­tend­ent and oth­er di­vi­sions of the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice on all mat­ters per­tain­ing to nat­ur­al and cul­tur­al re­sources on and around the Na­tion­al Mall. “I still pro­tect re­sources,” Dewey ex­plains, “but not just stone build­ings.”

Born in Lake Zurich, a north­w­est sub­urb of Chica­go, Dewey earned a bach­el­or’s de­gree in clas­sic­al an­tiquit­ies from the Uni­versity of Kan­sas. She wanted to go in­to ar­chae­ology, but a col­lege ad­viser re­com­men­ded she pur­sue ar­chae­olo­gic­al-site con­ser­va­tion, she tells me, on the grounds that it was more prac­tic­al. She picked up her first mas­ter’s de­gree, in Egypto­logy, at the Uni­versity of Chica­go, be­fore pur­su­ing an­oth­er, in his­tor­ic pre­ser­va­tion, at the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania. Upon gradu­at­ing, she moved to Egypt to do con­di­tion-as­sess­ment and con­ser­va­tion work on the 12th-cen­tury Ayy­u­bid Wall in Cairo.

She was only in Egypt for a short time, but it was a form­at­ive one. A small tat­too on her left ankle spells out “cat” phon­et­ic­ally in Ar­ab­ic. (Cats were con­sidered sac­red in an­cient Egyp­tian so­ci­ety, and “Cat” is also Dewey’s nick­name.) Un­for­tu­nately, the double mean­ing was lost in trans­la­tion. “It doesn’t mean the furry little creature,” she tells me.

A year later, Dewey was back in the states, at a small ar­chi­tec­ture firm in Chica­go. The fol­low­ing year, she moved to the D.C. area for a job at a con­ser­va­tion firm. Then, in the early aughts, she went to work for the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice. Ini­tially placed with the Na­tion­al Cap­it­ol Re­gion­al Of­fice, she has since served as act­ing chief ranger at the George Wash­ing­ton Me­mori­al Park­way, act­ing chief of cul­tur­al-re­sources pre­ser­va­tion ser­vices at the Na­tion­al Cap­it­al Re­gion­al Of­fice, and act­ing cul­tur­al-re­sources pro­gram man­ager at Na­tion­al Cap­it­al Parks, among oth­er roles.

Her list of cur­rent pro­jects in­cludes cre­at­ing “a statue man­age­ment plan,” so that her team can keep track of which statues have been cleaned, the re­hab­il­it­a­tion of Con­sti­tu­tion Gar­dens and Frank­lin Park in North­w­est D.C., and com­pli­ance work around tent­at­ive plans for an Eis­en­hower me­mori­al statue and a Peace Corps monu­ment. And, of course, at­tend­ing to mat­ters re­lated to some of the more eph­em­er­al parks re­sources — like man­aging the team that pre­dicts D.C.’s Big Bloom.

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