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The perfect career landing

Paul Otto has led Sibley State Park as manager for just a few days shy of 10 years. Its mix of woodlands, prairie, and wetlands and its hilly terrain offers the best of everything, he said. Tribune file photo

NEW LONDON -- A career of more than 35 years with the Minnesota state parks system hasn't made it any easier to answer the question that has made Paul Otto's work so rewarding.

Otto retired from his career with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Tuesday as the manager of Sibley State Park.

Asked what he's enjoyed the most, Otto said it comes down to two things that are hard to rank one over the other.

He said he's always enjoyed the role of helping people who come to have fun, make memories and enjoy the outdoors.

By the same token, he's always enjoyed making these outdoors his work place. "Who could ask for a better place to work?" he said.

Otto, 60, has served as the manager of Sibley State Park since January, 2001. He leaves a few days shy of his 10th anniversary after joining the many experienced managers within the DNR to take advantage of a retirement incentive.

He won't be saying goodbye to the place he loves, however. Otto is an avid outdoor photographer, and said his retirement will give him more time to visit his favorite haunts in the park with camera in hand.

It's the busiest park he's served in his career, and it's also the one that offers the best of all that he loves. Its mix of prairie, woodlands and wetlands and a hilly terrain make for a wonderful setting, he explained.

Some of his favorite spots can be found on the hiking trail to Mount Tom, atop the scenic hill, amongst the grassland of the park's restored prairie, or smack dab in the center of the park's horse camp. There, he can look one direction over Lake Henchen and to the east, the hilly woodlands that define the park for many.

Otto never imagined he would find his career in the outdoors when he was growing up in the Mankato area. He initially had an interest in education, but a two-year stint in the Army dissuaded him. His military duties in air defense placed him at Fort Bliss, Texas, and put him at times in the role of an instructor.

He started his college studies at Bethany Lutheran Community College near Mankato, and earned his bachelor's degree in biology at Bemidji State University. He was interested in natural resources but was not necessarily expecting to pursue a career with the park system. He took his civil service exam and his first job offer happened to be from the park system.

He never turned back.

"No regrets," he said.

He began his career in 1975 with the Sakatah Lake State Park near Waterville. He joined the staff at Fort Ridgely State Park near Fairfax in April, 1976. In October of that year he accepted the position of assistant manager at Lake Carlos State Park near Alexandria.

He returned to Fort Ridgely as park manager in April 1980, and in November 1988 became manager for Camden State Park near Marshall.

He succeeded Dave Lais at the helm of Sibley State Park. Like his predecessor, he continued a long tradition of improvements at one of Minnesota's most popular parks. The largest project was the addition of a sanitary sewer system in the park. Not the stuff of glamour, but absolutely essential to a park that is a destination for so many campers and day visitors.

The addition of camper cabins and the expansion at Monson Lake State Park are also among the projects that Otto played roles in making possible.

The average attendance at Sibley State Park is in the range of 250,000 visitors a year. They come from points far and wide for a wide range of interests. Summer is by far the busiest, but this is truly a park that sees year around use, noted Otto. The winter snows attract many cross country skiers and increasingly, snowshoe enthusiasts.

He is among those who loves to strap on a pair of snowshoes and hike the snow-filled woods, and will be doing lots more now that he is retired. There's also a long list of "honey-do" jobs waiting at home, he laughed.

Otto said he's always taken some vacation time around Christmas, so he's not quite sure yet how he will handle the new role of being retired. "It probably won't hit me until sometime next January," he said.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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