1/21/2010 3:46:00 PM 'Gen. Crook' retires Fort Verde State Park ranger, re-enactor readies to hit the road
Dennis Lockhart has played the role of Gen. George Crook at Fort Verde Historic State Park for the last 12 years. The living-history role has taken him throughout the southwest and allowed him to share his passion for western military history.
Dennis Lockhart loves nothing better than relating the history of Fort Verde, especially when he has the opportunity to share it with school children. Lockhart has presented programs to dozens of groups in his 15-plus years as a ranger for Arizona State Parks.
CAMP VERDE - After 20 years as a volunteer and ranger at Fort Verde Historic State Park, Dennis Lockhart, widely known for re-enacting the character of Gen. George Crook, turned in his hat and badge this month.
It is a decision that will cost him his stars but, eventually, earn him some stripes.
With his long grey beard and casual smile, Lockhart has easily been the most recognizable employee of the historic state park.
But he was most recognizable when he donned his signature pith helmet and hunting suit, the non-standard issue uniform worn by the non-standard general who once wreaked havoc on the Yavapai and Apache of the Verde Valley, then came to their defense.
"Most people around here recognize me as Gen. Crook. I don't get two sideways glances if I go into a restaurant carrying a gun and dressed as Crook. If someone does bat an eye, the odds are they are not a local," he says.
Lockhart's decision to volunteer at Fort Verde in 1989 began a 20-year love affair with the park, in particular its buildings and the stories they told.
"It was the buildings that first got me interested. I enjoyed helping keep them in shape," he says, "Then I started reading about the place. The more I read, the more I liked what I read. So I read some more."
Much like the man he would come to portray, Lockhart wanted to know everything there was to know about the fort, the surrounding country, who the Indians were and the personal lives of the men who had once occupied the historic quarters.
It was, as he points out, the continuation of a thirst for history that began when he attended a class in American history shortly after his retirement from the Air Force.
"I took a class from Dr. Dieter Bartel at Yavapai College. It was the first time I had someone teach me American history from a foreign point of view. I was blown away and left wondering why wasn't I taught this before," he says.
Shortly after hiring on full time in 1993, Lockhart was bit by the re-enacting bug and quickly learned that he was expected to assume the role of someone once stationed at the fort.
"I did not choose Crook. My first choice was Dr. Edgar Mearns, the former fort surgeon and naturalist. That was until I saw a picture of him. He had a beard but that's about where the resemblance stopped.
"So I decided to just play the role of a private in Company I, 1st Cavalry, a unit that was stationed at the fort in 1872, its most active period. I was gathering up the proper gear when Park Manger Bob Munson approached me. He told me 'you need to do Crook.' My response was, 'Crook who?'"
Since first assuming the role in 1993, Lockhart has been featured in numerous magazine articles and on the History Channel. He has been consulted by Hollywood moviemakers and even returned to Yavapai College to do some teaching of his own.
But his favorite accomplishment has been relating all he has learned and "telling it like it really was," to school kids, civic groups and just about anyone who wants to listen.
"I have a box of thank you letters I have received over the years. They are the most treasured items I will take from here," he says.
The box of thank you letters, like his re-enactment garb and his dog, he says, will all fit nicely into the fifth wheel trailer he plans to purchase in the near future.
"I have a house to finish fixing and some loose ends to tie up. Once the house is sold I will buy something to pull the fifth wheel. Then the dog and me are hitting the highway.
"There won't be any reason to hang around here any more. I have too many old forts to see, too many battlefields to visit and too much research left to do."
His new life, he points out, will call for a new, less responsible role, which will of course include a demotion in rank.
"I'm going to turn in my general's stars for the stripes of a quartermaster sergeant in the cavalry," says Lockhart. "I'm too old and too fat to be playing anything else."