By Joe Southern
For nearly 30 years Sharon Hanzik has been the public face of Brazos Bend State Park, probably as recognizable to regular park visitors as the alligators and other wildlife they come to see.
Hanzik has spent 31 of her 49 years as a park employee but on Feb. 25 it will all come to an end. The gregarious park ranger will retire to explore the world beyond the 4,897-acre park in southern Fort Bend County.
“I’m going to travel the country,” she said. “I want to see as much of this planet as I possibly can.”
Hanzik said her first goal is to visit the remaining 51 Texas state parks she has not seen yet along with 17 states. After that, the world is wide open to her. In her time at Brazos Bend, however, much of the world has come to her. Houston attracts people from across the globe and while they are here they frequently visit the park to experience nature.
“I’ve met people from all over the world,” she said.
For the past several years Hanzik has served as the volunteer coordinator and natural history interpreter. It’s a far cry from where a shy, 18-year-old high school senior from Needville started out when her sister helped her get a part-time job cleaning restrooms at Brazos Bend on weekends in 1986. The park had only been open for two years and Hanzik was just happy to have a job. By that summer after graduation she was working full time.
In 1990 she was promoted to a maintenance ranger position and spent a lot of her time maintaining trails and campsites.
“I shuffled around a lot (in different positions) until someone discovered my talents I didn’t know I had,” she said.
She started working at the park headquarters and led hikes for school groups.
“That gave me my first taste of interpretation,” she said.
She discovered that she really enjoyed leading school children on hikes around the lakes and showing them the different plants and animals. Although she enjoyed doing it, she still felt too shy and introverted to do it full time in front of the general public.
Under the mentorship of the late Jan Beatty, who was serving as a nature interpreter, Hanzik began to come out of her shell and started to blossom as a public speaker. Even though she was on maintenance duty, she gravitated to the Nature Center as often as she could to hang out for a couple hours. She rode her bike on trails so she could do interpretation for people she encountered.
Eventually, David Heinicke, who has been her partner for the last 20 years, made a move from his position as volunteer coordinator to park law enforcement. That allowed her to slide into that position. Since then, she has helped train hundreds of volunteers and manages a group of roughly 120 in the nonprofit volunteer organization (which she likens to herding cats).
“In the years she has been managing the volunteers at Brazos Bend the group has grown in numbers and impact,” Heinicke said.
“Sharon does a remarkable job in learning motivations of volunteers, honoring those motivations and establishing and maintaining trust in the relationship,” said Park Superintendent Chris Bishop.
In all those years she had led countless hikes, nature programs, community outreach activities and other events.
“My hands are in many photographs holding baby alligators and snakes,” she said.
Hanzik has many fond memories of her time at Brazos Bend but she said two events will stick with her forever. The first was a schoolboy named Ethan who walked with her on a hike and asked her an endless stream of really good questions.
“When it was done, Ethan gave me a big hug and said ‘this was the best day of my life,’” she said.
The second came one time when she was doing a reading program. Her audience consisted of about 30 teen and pre-teen Boy Scouts.
“They were really into story time as if they were 5 years old,” Hanzik recalled.
Of course with the good times come the bad. She has seen the park weather eight floods, the last two coming last year alone. The largest and most damaging came in 1992. She said of all the major storms to hit, Hurricane Ike did the most visible damage.
Among the changes she has seen in 31 years is the arrival of the George Observatory and the Challenger Learning Center, which are operated in the park by the Houston Museum of Natural History. In 2009, Hanzik published a children’s book called “Raccoons Don’t Use Spoons.” She plans to write more books in retirement.
Hanzik said she always wanted to be a teacher but didn’t like the thought of being cooped up in a classroom all day. She said being an interpreter allowed her to teach and share her passion of the outdoors.
“She’s spent her career spreading her love of nature and conservation to literally tens of thousands of children and adults alike,” Heinicke said. “There’s no way to know how many children’s lives she has shaped.”
As the park’s most tenured employee, Hanzik has served with all five park superintendents and even helped train her current boss.
“I first met Sharon in 1999,” Bishop said. “At the time, I was working as a part-time park naturalist at Lake Houston State Park. My manager sent me to Brazos Bend to learn what a quality interpretive operation looked like. Sharon was welcoming, helpful and accommodating to me on that visit. Every time I saw her at a special event after that, Sharon checked in with me to ask how things were going and to see if I was closer to getting hired into a more permanent position.”
Ten years later Bishop returned to Brazos Bend as assistant superintendent. He left to lead Lake Whitney State Park and returned to Brazos Bend a couple years ago as superintendent.
“Any time that an employee works with us for over three decades, I am aware that we will not understand everything that the employee does for the park until six months to a year after they have left. Given that, I certainly understand much of what Sharon does for us, and she is leaving big shoes to fill,” Bishop said. “I am grateful to Sharon’s service to the public, to Brazos Bend State Park Volunteer Organization and the park, and I am personally grateful for her friendship. We will miss Sharon very much.”
“There will be a big hole at Brazos Bend,” Heinicke said. “We probably won’t even realize what all she does, until she’s gone.”
Hanzik said that when she leaves, the thing she will miss the most is not the animals or a career spent working in nature, but the people.
“We’re a close-knit group and I won’t disappear,” she said.
When asked how she can afford to retire so young, Hanzik said being single, having no children and investing wisely has enabled her to pursue her dreams before age 50. When asked if she plans to return or become a volunteer, she said no. “It’s too much like work.”
And in typical Hanzik fashion to end or transition a conversation, “that’s all I have to say about that.”