Behind the Parks: Meet Matt Thompson at Highbanks

Matt Thompson
Part-time Ranger, Highbanks

Hometown and background

I come from North Greenbush, a town of just over 13,000 people in upstate New York. The western edge of the town is bordered by the Hudson River. The state capital of New York, Albany, is on the opposite side of the river. It’s about two hours north of New York City. I played baseball at Columbia High School and was recruited on a scholarship as a baseball player by Campbell University, a small school in North Carolina. After a year, I transferred to a big school, the University of South Carolina, and began my SEC phase. It started great. I hit a home run in my first at-bat in a non-conference game against Charleston Southern. In my first SEC game against Auburn I hit a double off Auburn’s “green monster,” a wall almost as big as the famous “green monster” at the Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park.

It was at the University of South Carolina that I met my wife, Christine. I was studying Sports Administration in the School of Applied Sciences and Christine was studying athletic training at the university’s spring sports center. I had seen her around quite a lot but we had never spoken, not until we were both invited to a college party. We started dating in my Junior year.

Matt and his wife, Christine.

Christine comes from Columbus and she later transferred her major to Sports Administration, same as mine. Our relationship became serious and we decided that, whoever got a job first, after college, that the other would go with them. We both undertook a three-month internship near the end of our degrees. I went off to work as an intern at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, with the headquarters based in New Jersey. I worked to create media guides for all the conference teams in about 15 different sports. My dad was a baseball coach at one of the conference schools, Siena College in Loudonville, New York. I can’t say I enjoyed the interactions with the media overly much. It felt like I was becoming the face of the conference, but I prefer to be in the background. And the time demands, with all the games to go to and the very long hours, was often stressful. I realized this wasn’t really what I wanted to do.

When Christine and I graduated, in December 1997, that was the first time our parents ever got to meet each other. Christine, who had been a swimmer in high school, got a great job as Assistant Aquatic Director at Miami University, Ohio. So I moved with her, and we lived in Oxford, Ohio, from 1998 until 2003. We got married on August 12, 2000 and out first daughter, Emma, was born on June 20 the following year. In 2003, Christine was appointed Aquatic Director at The Ohio State University, and so we moved to Columbus, a return home for Christine. Our other two daughters were born here, Amy on May 21, 2004, and Audra on September 2, 2008.

I had worked in a number of office jobs, but by the time Amy was a few months old, and with her getting sick sometimes, I was taking quite a lot of time off. Christine and I realized that what I was earning was barely covering day care anyway, so we came to the momentous decision that I would become, primarily, a stay-at-home dad to look after the kids. It’s been a fantastic choice. Being there, seeing my girls grow up, take their first steps, and just spending so much time with them early in their lives, has enriched my own life immeasurably.

Matt with his daughters, Amy, Audra and Emma.

I was very fortunate in finding an opportunity here at Metro Parks that has allowed me to work part-time but which still allowed me to be home with my kids during the day. My father-in-law, Bob Zahler, was a long-time park ranger at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park, and he suggested that I might try out as a park ranger for the evening and weekend shifts. I applied for a position and was called for an interview in November 2004. I started here at Highbanks as a part-time park ranger soon after, and did my Field Training Officer program in early 2005.

As our kids got older, I entered the full-time work force again. It started from an interest I had in computing. I got some certifications from computer skills training and was employed on a contract basis for certain short-term projects, such as a month helping the Franklin County Board of Elections input election data, and a two-month project helping the shoe company, DSW, build new point-of-sales systems. Then, in 2016, I began some work as a contractor for Nationwide Insurance, and was finally taken on staff by Nationwide as a full-time associate in November 2017, working on their technology service desk. By this time, I had been a part-time Ranger at Highbanks for 13 years and I didn’t want to stop. I loved the work so much. Metro Parks has been very accommodating to me, as my full-time role at Nationwide meant I had to modify the times I could work at the park, especially in the first few years.

What I do at Metro Parks and what I love about my job

As park rangers, just our presence in the park provides an important function, as reassurance for our millions of park visitors every year. We are guarantors of safety. We open and close the park, and make sure that all the buildings, such as the nature center here at Highbanks, are fully locked and secure, that restrooms are cleaned and that all trash is disposed of at the day’s end.

I have a great relationship with my fellow rangers and other staff members here at Highbanks, and I especially love the interactions with park visitors during the course of any work week. Lots of time is spent patrolling the park, often in the ranger truck on park roads, but also out on the trails, either on foot, or using one of our trail-capable vehicles, such as the Kubota utility vehicle. Occasionally, we need to enforce park rules or have visitors modify their behavior, most often by way of friendly reminders and usually for issues such as letting dogs off-leash. For the most part, visitors are extremely well behaved and I have many friendly and pleasing interactions with them.

Matt on the Highbanks Overlook Deck with some of the Holiday decorations.

My favorite Metro Parks activity

Over the years, I’ve loved nothing more than taking my girls to the Preschool in the Parks programs. All three of them always loved coming to the parks for these programs. They are often fun and educational, like the preschool story time programs, with readings by naturalists. But I think the most fun they had of all was at the leaf pile programs. I’ve never seen my kids’ faces light up with joy so quickly as when they got to jump into and play around in a giant pile of leaves.

As a family, we also enjoy hiking at the parks. We live closer to Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park, so we’re often seen on the Terrace Trail or the Ancient Trail. Sometimes I walk alone, but most often with Christine, and over the years the girls have frequently joined us for a full family walk. As a family, we have also thoroughly enjoyed Metro Parks’ Geocaching programs. We have completed the geocache twice, and it took us to all the parks. It’s a great way for families to discover the entire park system.

My favorite Metro Parks story that includes a positive visitor interaction…

I often remember the excitement and deep interest shown by so many visitors after the eagles had their first fledgling at Highbanks. The first eagle baby was born in 2010, and a couple of our volunteers brought out spotting scopes to the overlook deck at the end of the Overlook Trail. One of them connected their scope to a computer screen, so that many people on the deck could see the nest and get a glimpse of the parents feeding their young.

If I could go anywhere in the world and time and money were not a concern…

My parents are starting to get into genealogy, and my mom in particular is interested in discovering more about her Irish roots. Her family name is Mahar and her grandfather (my great-grandfather) emigrated here to the United States. I’d love to go on a trip to Ireland with her, to visit Dublin and see some of the many ancient castles.

Fun facts about me and my family

1. My daughters are all sports stars! Our eldest daughter, Emma, was into swimming, like her mom. Emma set six school records while swimming for Central Crossing High School, including 200 Meters Freestyle, 500 Meters Freestyle, the Individual Medley, and three school relay records. She also swam competitively at Wilmington College for two years and is currently near to finishing her degree in Health Sciences at The Ohio State University.

Emma competing at a swim meet for Wilmington College, and with her mother, Christine.

Our middle daughter, Amy, played volleyball in high school and is now a star player on her college team, Ohio Christian in Circleville. She has done two mission trips to the Dominican Republic through volleyball.

Amy with Matt, and competing for Ohio Christian at volleyball.

Our youngest daughter, Audra, had a fantastic soccer-based trip to England last year, as part of the State of Ohio’s Olympic Development Program. I’d like to do that trip with her some day. She’s a really gifted soccer player and plays for NWFC (North West Football Club) in Hilliard. Her entire team went on the trip. They went to Manchester, and saw a Premier League game at Manchester United, then had a tour of the stadium of their local rival, Manchester City. Then they went to Liverpool, and saw a home game played by Everton, and toured the stadium of their city rival, Liverpool FC. They also saw a game at Wrexham, which is owned by Hollywood superstars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. Audra came home with a team scarf from each of the five teams. Audra is a midfielder and also plays for her high school, Central Crossing.

Audra with her teammates outside Wrexham Football Club on her trip to the UK, and on the soccer field at practice.

2. The Thompson Holiday Home! For the past twenty years, the Thompson family has got together for a mid-August vacation at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. In the early years we rented two different holiday homes, but for the last five years we’ve managed to rent a huge holiday home right across the road from the beach. It has four levels, and eight bedrooms, and easily accommodated 32 of us last year. Along with my parents, and me, Christine and our three daughters, we are joined by my brother Mark and his family, and by my sister Christina and her family. Mark is four years younger than me. He and his wife have three kids. Christina is six years younger than me. She and her husband have one son. And we’re also joined by my uncles and their families.

The extended Thompson family in South Carolina.

3. A weird number of shared holidays! It’s weird, but it’s also pretty special, that we have so many shared holidays in our family. Me and my sister, Christina, were born on the same day, six years apart. My mom and my grandmother were born on the same day. And my daughter Audra and her cousin MJ were born on the same day, September 2, 2008. I got a call at 7am from my brother, Mark, to say that Mark Junior (MJ) had just arrived in the world. And Audra joined him about 12 hours later. Audra and MJ think of themselves as twins, twin cousins. My wife Christine also shares a birthday with one of my uncles, and that also happens to be Taylor Swift’s birthday. It’s worth mentioning, because all three of my girls went to a Taylor Swift concert in Cincinnati earlier this year, and they’re all going to another Taylor Swift concert next year, in Indianapolis. Christine will be going with them to the next concert. I think Taylor Swift is a great role model for girls. I know her songs, because the girls play them so much, but I prefer classic rock, with bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and Rush.

My favorite food and dessert

A medium-cooked steak, with either steak fries or mashed potatoes, is my favorite meal. Because of our work commitments, and the girls off doing their things, we don’t get to sit down and eat together as often as we’d like. When we do, I often cook chicken, either Italian style, or barbecued, or pulled chicken, usually with green beans and mashed potatoes.

I have a big sweet tooth, and don’t like to discriminate against any kind of dessert. But I will say that one of my favorite experiences is to go to Graters on the way home from one of the many sports events or activities I go to with Christine and the girls. I enjoy the seasonal varieties, such as peppermint stick ice cream in winter, or a lemon sorbet in summer, usually in a waffle cone. I also love lemon meringue pie and banana cream pie.

My favorite entertainment

I love live sports, and see so many events, matches and meets with my girls. Amy is often away at volleyball tournaments in such far-flung places as Chicago, Louisville, or Indianapolis. I try to get to these when I can. Amy also enjoys watching Ohio State athletics, especially football, so we go to a number of their games. We also go to volleyball and basketball matches at Ohio State, for both the men’s and women’s teams. Audra and I just had an exciting weekend watching the Columbus Crew win the MLS Cup. They won the final over Los Angeles and we watched the game together on television. We went to a number of Crew home games last year. One of my cousins is married to the owner of the Portland Timbers. In 2015, Portland reached the MLS Cup Final, and played the final against the Crew. My cousin and her husband were our guests for the weekend. Mixed emotions, because the Crew lost that final, although my cousin went home happy to the west coast.

Matt, Christine and their daughters decked out in Ohio State gear.

I enjoy reading self-help books. Some of my favorites are Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill, and The Millionaire Mind by Thomas J. Stanley. I have neither grown rich, nor have I made a million, but they are still excellent books to shape your mindset for positivity. I also enjoy a number of John Maxwell’s books on leadership.

As a family, we’ve loved a number of Disney movies, in both the theater and on streaming, such as Frozen, Aladdin, and The Lion King. We also had a favorite TV program, The Middle. It was on ABC and ran for ten years, but it finished five years ago. We still watch re-runs occasionally, as it was such a good show. It’s a comedy about the struggles of a lower middle class family in Indiana.

If I had just 60 seconds to share why I love working at Metro Parks, I’d say…

It’s hard to beat being out in nature every day and interacting with so many different people. It definitely beats being stuck behind a computer screen for much of the day.

Matt Thompson was talking to Communications Coordinator, Virginia Gordon

8 thoughts on “Behind the Parks: Meet Matt Thompson at Highbanks

  1. This was a beautiful summary of your life so far! It shows what a great person and wonderful father you are. I am proud to know you. Thanks!

  2. Look forward to meeting you and just saying HI at Highbanks (frequent visitor). Love the family and OHIO stories.

  3. What a wonderful insight into the Thompson Family.
    We know the Thompson’s from church. Emma and Amy (and sometimes Audra) house sit for us when we go on vacation. They not only watch over and take care of the house but they also pet sit for our dog, 2 indoor cats and 3 outdoor feral cats.
    This article has shown me more about Matt and his life; a very interesting life, indeed.
    The entire Matt Thompson family is a true blessing in our life and we are so grateful to know and love them.

  4. Looks like God has blessed you in every way!!
    You have lived quite well!!😇 Continue to share your love and joy!
    You are a fine example of how to live life to the fullest!

    God’s blessings on you and your beautiful family!

    Amy

  5. I am thrilled that Highbanks is in such capable hands. My parents owned the property which is now the Highbanks park. We lived there from the late 1940’s until mid 1950’s when my parents sold part of the property and donated part of the property which is now “HIghbanks.” Our old house was torn down and the site is now marked by the “Mansion Shelter”. I wish I had known the history of the property when I lived there since we had an active farm and often plowed over what is now known to be the area of Indian Mounds. At the time we owned it we called it “Dripping Rock” farm. When i visited several years ago I talked at length with one of the Park employees and she brought some old photos of our house from the basement and I identified what rooms they were.

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