Parks And Trails Profile: Filling The Big Steps Left By Big Brothers

By Deborah Locke, Information Officer, DNR Parks and Trails Division



When Jeff Karels was a little shaver, his big brothers Keith and Ron took him everywhere. The family lived south of Mankato in river country and once Jeff learned to walk, the brothers taught him to fish and hunt. Ron was 14 years older than Jeff; Keith was 12 years older. When Ron learned a new skill, Keith followed suit. Both brothers passed their knowledge on to the littlest brother.

It seems natural then that when Keith and Ron took state park jobs as adults, Jeff would follow their lead. Jeff has been assistant park supervisor at Itasca State Park for 17 years, preceded by jobs at Old Mill, Minneopa, Great River Bluffs, Lake Bemidji and Sakatah Lake state parks. He’s worked at the DNR for 47 years.

“The brothers were intertwined,” said Darlene “George” Karels, Jeff’s wife of 47 years. “If Jeff had issues at work, he’d get Ron and Keith’s opinions. It was useful to have a team of built-in advisors that Jeff could lean on. The brothers were always in contact with each other.”

Both Ron and Keith have passed away. Jeff said he misses their guidance and the camaraderie his big brothers provided.

When he was young, Jeff considered a law enforcement career until he worked a seasonal park job in buildings and maintenance in the 1970s. Then his brothers took him on patrol at the parks which planted an interest that bloomed into Jeff’s first job as a ranger at O.L. Kipp State Park. (Later renamed Great River Bluffs.)

“Ron and Keith were extremely proud when I took that job,” he said. “Now here we are today, at Itasca where the Mississippi begins. My career began on the river at Great River Bluffs State Park, and it ends here, at Lake Itasca. That’s my story in a nutshell.”

It’s a big nutshell. Moving up the state park career ladder often requires literally moving throughout the state. Jeff said the hardest part of his job was uprooting his family, something Ron and Keith did often. He said that George provided rock solid support through all the moves with their two children, Kara, and Jeffry Jr.

“I could not have done any of this without George,” Jeff said.  “There were sacrifices we made over the years, and they take a toll. Like, I couldn’t be there for all the school events. If I worked in a small park, I had to pick up the slack and be there, holidays, evening shifts. You just did the best you can.”

The best he can still shows the influence of two older brothers who acted as guiding lights. Jeff said his brothers advised him on how to resolve a situation, how to feel ok about learning from his mistakes, how to survive difficulties, how to diffuse conflict during law enforcement situations. The best tool in Jeff’s toolbox? Common sense, he said, a trait born of experience applied the right way.

Jeff and George expect to wrap up their careers at Itasca State Park. George has always worked in some aspect of retail (28 years with the K-Mart Corporation) and now works in the Itasca retail operations warehouse, assisting in the receiving and distribution of park merchandise, and setting up store displays.  

Jeff said he still feels awe when arriving at work each day in such a beautiful place. The couple agree on a lot, especially this. Each year a half million park visitors travel to Itasca to enjoy its amenities and beauty and then they leave. The Karels? They are there to stay.

Images courtesy Minnesota DNR.

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