Recipient Biography

Mary Kathleen “Kathy” Perales


Mary Kathleen “Kathy” Perales is a third generation Texan raised in a traditional Hispanic culture, and the youngest daughter of Ernest and Anne Marie Perales. Her parents had two children, and stressed the need for education, working to keep them in Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school. Her parents spoke Spanish in the home only when they wanted to keep secrets from the children. Kathy’s introduction to service to country was rooted in a long proud history of military service by both sides of her family going back a century. On the Gallegos side of the family, Uncle Frank served in the Air Force and Uncle Rudy, who was fluent in five languages, served as a translator as part of the War effort. On the Perales side, most served in the Army; her grandfather, Juan, was a veteran of World War I, Uncles John and Alex were veterans of World War II. Uncle Larry served in the Air Force during the Vietnam era, and Uncle Bobby served in the Army during that time. Kathy’s dad, Ernest, was a decorated Army veteran of World War II and Korea. 

The military was not only a training ground for her family, as Kelly Air Force Base provided the stability for her father’s civil service career, and the annual Kelly Days provided the backdrop of fireworks and family celebrations. Her mother and father provided the opportunities that created a love of the great outdoors. The neighborhood city park was a block away, and summer vacations on the Texas coast provided for fishing and swimming and making memories with the family. Kathy’s dad was an avid fisherman and hunter and taught both his girls skills. Kathy’s big sister (a chemistry major and dentist) provided her the introduction into the sciences and steered her toward an interest in biology. 

Kathy had a winding career path, starting in Biology at St. Mary’s University to Texas A&M (TAMU) at Galveston for a B.S. in Marine Sciences; to the main campus for a Secondary Education Teacher’s certification in Biology. Through a librarian who worked in the Parks and Recreation department, she met Dr. Robert Ditton and an amazing group of faculty at TAMU. Dr. Ditton convinced her to apply for a Master’s degree in Parks and Recreation and of course volunteer to help in his Marine Laboratory. The transition from Marine Science to the Marine Lab seemed a natural progression. She learned that interviewing fishermen was not as messy as working with fish directly. The practical experience working in the lab, and the required six-month internship Dr. Ditton brokered, landed her with the US Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, MS. William Hansen and Scott Jackson at the Waterways Experiment Station turned Kathy’s six-month internship into a civil service career lasting more than 33 years.  

The Corps of Engineers not only provided access to a national federal recreation program spanning 43 states and 400+ lakes, it was the research center for the agency and provided education and professional development opportunities. The job gave her travel opportunities across the nation working with field staff managing water resources in both prosperous and challenging times. Early in her career, she was given the task of standardizing the many systems used to monitor visitation at Corps lakes. In the process of developing these systems, Kathy traveled across the country meeting a network of managers, rangers and district staff who all worked together to create uniformity in this business process. This emerging “community of practice” she organized in the 1980s, before email and the Internet, shaped the way she approached all the challenges she would face throughout her career.

The Corps introduced her to the world of professionals and academics in parks and recreation and set her on the path to Michigan State University to study under Drs. Dan Stynes and Dennis Propst. In the mid nineties, while on long-term training at Michigan State University, Kathy began to understand the tremendous potential of this emerging technology called the Internet. She saw it as an amazing opportunity to connect people and take the community of practice concept to the next level. Over the next several years she refined her concepts and worked with Headquarters to establish leadership teams for the Recreation and Environmental Stewardship Programs. With the leadership teams in place, the time was right to share her vision of the thing that became the Natural Resources Management (NRM) Gateway. A key to turning this idea into reality was bringing in a team starting with Ginny Dickerson and Dr. Bonnie Bryson. The Gateway was the fruition of Kathy’s vision of having a place for others to excel. Leaders throughout the agency then came forward to become a part of the larger community and share their talents and knowledge.

Kathy’s community of practice mindset brought the Corps programs and practices to the larger parks and recreation community. Kathy was relentless in sharing what was her day job with the practitioners she worked with in the National Society for Park Resources, and the Armed Forces Recreation Society. Her efforts to unite elements of NRPA under a single banner were realized in the development of a policy to support returning veterans in therapeutic recreation and park settings. She was recognized for her leadership efforts by serving as President of the Armed Forces Recreation Society (AFRS), serving as AFRS trustee to the National Recreation and Park Association, serving on the board of the National Society for Park Resources, serving on the NRPA executive committee, and elected to the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration and board. Coming full circle, Dr. Perales led an effort to include military recreation programs in the Gold Medal awards program. This award not only recognized the great work of military recreation programs, but also enhanced the ability to share best practices among military recreation professionals and members of the Corps NRM Community of Practice.

Service and sharing has been the driving force behind Kathy’s entire career. She says she is just getting started. Her legacy is providing the means for others to serve in the future, and her greatest joy are the friends who have enriched her life. [September 2015]