When Poinsett State Park rangers are working outdoors, the office answering machine tells callers “It’s a great day in South Carolina!” The cheerful message adds to the warm, welcoming atmosphere inspired by Thomas “Zabo” McCants ’99, park manager for the past 10 years.

For his leadership and exemplary service, McCants earned the 2016 Park Ranger of the Year Award in a national competition. Sixty rangers from across the U.S. were nominated for the award, sponsored by Servicewear Apparel, a Nashville, Tennessee, company that provides work uniforms worn by rangers, law enforcement officers and other public agency employees across the nation.

Poinsett State Park is in Wedgefield, South Carolina, well off the beaten path to tourist destinations. Despite its remoteness in the midlands, the park has grown in popularity and recreation opportunities under McCants’ leadership, while preserving its natural environment and historic heritage. Opened in 1936, the park is a 1,000-acre expanse including more than 300 species of flowering plants, shrubs and trees, and featuring forests with hiking and biking trails, campgrounds and cabins.

McCants, who lives at the park with wife Amanda, has worked hard to make improvements. He increased mountain biking trails from 4 miles when he arrived to more than 25 miles today, recruiting local volunteers to help. Campgrounds were refurbished. The 81-year-old cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps have been made more comfortable. The modernized park has wi-fi, a gift shop and ice cream.

Quick thinking by McCants during natural disasters kept visitors out of harm’s way and saved park properties. In 2015, when heavy rains were forecast, he drained the park pond, an action that prevented surrounding areas from flooding when 16 inches of water fell over a three-day period. During 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, residents evacuating the coast sought shelter inland in park campgrounds. When trees began falling in high winds, McCants moved everyone to safe areas.

In all of the park’s successes, McCants praised its employees. “A leader may set the pace, but it takes a good team to keep it going,” he said. “We have pushed through some hard times together, always trying to keep a positive attitude and stay focused on goals.”

He has special memories of WCU and its parks and recreation management faculty. “I hold my WCU education close. I learned a lot about the qualities of good leaders from Maurice Phipps, who was a leadership counselor in a way. Ben Tholkes told cool stories about a park ranger’s life that made me want to follow this career path,” he said. At that time, parks and recreation management majors wore T-shirts that read, “Know what you know and know what you don’t know.” The words belonged to Paul Petzoldt, a top mountaineering expert, and McCants uses them when training new employees.

Jim Burnett of Servicewear praised McCants as most deserving of his company’s honor, saying, “He embodies exactly what we had in mind in creating this award.” On hand for the ceremony were more than 50 rangers from park districts in the mountain, sandhills, lake and coastal regions who know McCants. In writing his nomination of McCants for the award, fellow ranger Brad Lane said, “He loves his park and, more than that, he just loves being a park ranger.” Visitors who meet McCants never forget him, Lane wrote.