Meet JoAnn Augustine, the ‘Jill of all trades’ at Jack London Park in Glen Ellen

JoAnn Augustine has clocked some 3,000 volunteer hours at the park, juggling an impressive array of jobs.|

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

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Where in the world of Jack London State Historic Park is JoAnn Augustine?

On any given day you might encounter this English major in the House of Happy Walls bookstore, prepared to offer advice on which of London’s 50 volumes might be the best fit for your reading tastes. She made a vow to read them all and so far is about 4/5 of the way toward her goal.

You could find Augustine, the MBA, taking money and directing visitors from the kiosk at the entrance to the park. Or you might spot Augustine, the attorney, behind the wheel of a golf cart, tooling visitors around the 1,400-acre Sonoma Mountain spread, crisscrossed by 26 miles of trails.

Then again, you could run into Augustine, the retired teacher, answering questions in the cottage where London, a prolific John Grisham of his day who pounded out a mind blowing range of work and was an international celebrity, both lived and worked — and died — in 1916.

The 74-year-old Sonoman also heads up The Green Team, a group of volunteers, like herself, that maintains a recycling program to recoup and redeem cans and bottles to cover the park’s garbage bill.

Augustine is an uber-volunteer, a superstar among an impressive crew of some 280 outstanding volunteers who bring passion and years of expertise to keeping the beloved park open to visitors.

It is not hyperbole when paid staff with Jack London Park Partners, who run the park under an 11-year-old agreement with the state, say they could not do it without highly competent volunteers like Augustine.

Since retiring several years ago, she logs in some 500 hours a year in a dizzying array of roles. One of them is serving on the park’s 13-member Volunteer Council, which advises and suggests ideas for park operations, said Susan St. Marie, the director of program and volunteer management for the park.

“The fantastic thing about Joann is that she is just very consistent, very responsible and smart, so she learns things quickly. She takes charge,” St. Marie said.

In the nearly 10 years that Augustine has been pitching in at the park, she has clocked about 3,000 hours. Only one other volunteer, an equestrian who lives next to the park and serves on the board, has put in more time, St. Marie added.

For her unflagging devotion to Jack London park and its visitors, Augustine has been selected for the North Bay Spirit Award. A collaboration between The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award singles out remarkable volunteers who go all-in for a cause that benefits the community.

A way of understanding people

Among the many hats she wears is serving as a docent in the cottage, London’s home and office for five years. She has a remarkable way of “reading” her guests, said Kylie Cronin, manager of guest services for the park.

“You can tell she cares. She can read their interest level and steer people to something they’ll be more interested in,” she said. “She’s really adaptable with the script. We do have certain things you should say and information you should give. But she has a real understanding of people and their attention spans.”

That way of intuiting people with varying backgrounds, interests and abilities comes after years serving as a public school teacher. Augustine taught at Vintage High School in Napa and in what she calls “a revolutionary new program” at a public school in American Canyon that integrated disciplines. She team-taught English and humanities with another teacher, sharing a class of 60 students. Augustine’s task was to bring in literary texts that supported the humanities, and with that she turned to Jack London, who not only wrote adventure stories but also books grappling with a wide range of social issues, political philosophies and futurism.

Augustine first showed up 11 years ago at Jack London State Park . After years working high-powered jobs — before teaching she worked 25 years as a reporter, writer and editor on legal issues for Commerce Clearing House, a publishing company that tracks, explains and analyzes tax and related law — Augustine found herself, as she put it, feeling that she wanted a life that went beyond lesson planning, teaching and grading. While she had been living in Sonoma for six years at the time, she spent most of her time in Napa County.

“I wanted to get to know something about Sonoma and make a community here,” she said.

At that time the park was in turmoil and then transition. After a state budgetary crisis in 2012 targeted some state parks like Jack London for closure, a local citizens group stepped up to take over management to keep it open. That eventually became the Jack London Park Partners, which operates the park with a small paid staff and crack volunteers like Augustine.

A high achiever who is everywhere

Augustine is adept at conveying information, whether to visitors entering the park wondering where to go and what to see or to people wanting to better understand the enigmatic, larger-than-life Jack London and his wife Charmian, his editor, adviser, sometime collaborator and fellow adventurer. London’s writings and the circumstances of his life spark endless debate among scholars and legions of London fans around the world.

Her intellectual curiosity led to her seek out opportunities in the park that stimulate her own curiosity or that will make things better for the park and its visitors. It is second nature to her. While working in legal publishing she decided to enhance her knowledge by going to law school at night. She passed the bar exam but never practice law. She also realized at some point that law and her English degree from Dominican College in her native San Rafael hadn’t adequately prepared her for the business aspects of her job so she also went back to night school for an MBA at Golden Gate University.

She is equally high achieving when it comes to working in the park. Augustine oversees The Green Team, a recycling project she helped champion into existence.

Over the last few years the group has installed recycling containers at key locations in the park. Once a week they gather it all up, pour it out on makeshift tables in a hidden corner of the park, and sort out redeemable cans and bottles from the garbage . Among the sorters are volunteers from Sweetwater Spectrum, a community for adults with autism and similar intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Augustine is known to fish into the bins herself if she sees something that doesn’t belong in there.

“It’s a weird thing about me,” she concedes with a grin. She also stops and picks up any bits of paper and trash she spots along the trails.

While it’s not a huge moneymaker, the $500 to $800 a year The Green Team pulls in does meet the goal of providing enough money for the park’s general fund to pay for its garbage collection. This year they have collected $182 in cans and bottles.

“We have a bunch of goals for The Green Team and while it’s kind of low it is still out there to improve public education, to get people to know what is and what is not recyclable. It’s a big challenge,” she said.

An adept driver

Augustine also leads tours of the park and is trained to drive visitors around on golf carts for excursion tours that take in the entire park in 2 1/2 hours. She is particularly excited about a new premium excursion she will be leading that will take people into the upper reaches of the mountain by electric cart, areas of spectacular beauty that until now were reachable only by hikers. Now people with disabilities or without the strength for such a vigorous climb may enjoy the high views of the park and The Valley of the Moon that Jack London revered.

“It’s really challenging for the driver,” she conceded. “We’ve got some new carts that have been donated that are powerful enough to do this. But they stand kind of high. You’re on a trail that already is a little bit steep and rocky. But I’ve never had one tip over. I keep telling myself that, to keep it slow.”

Her big range of jobs at the park hit all the right notes for Augustine, who loves history, literature and getting out in nature. One of the more challenging aspects, however, is honoring her commitment to read every book written by London and carried in the bookstore. It is part of a $1 million exhibit on the Londons and their remarkable lives. But she finds a few titles pretty vexing.

“I did make it almost through ‘The Iron Heel,’” she said half-apologetically of London’s difficult dystopian work of political science fiction. “I resolved early on in my volunteerism that I would read them all. I did. I resolved. Did I do it? The short answer is, no. But it did inform my activities. Every time I was here for a four-hour shift I would have one with me and I would read while I was here. So it did put me in the right frame of mind.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to

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