MOUNT DIABLO -- Roland Gaebert managed tens of millions of dollars in loans as a senior bank executive before deciding at age 51 to make a sharp career turn.
He quit his job to become a state park ranger.
Gaebert traded in the big paychecks and dark suits to earn much less and wear khaki green while working outdoors in a state park system perpetually short of funds.
Fifteen years later, the just-retired Mt. Diablo State Park superintendent said he doesn't regret his dramatic career flip even though he wishes the nation were willing to invest more in fixing its aging parks.
"Working in a state park means you always have a backlog of maintenance and projects that there isn't money to get to," Gaebert said. "You have to get creative in using gum and baling wire to hold things together."
In an interview before his Monday retirement, Gaebert said he was worried how much longer an erosion-damaged section of road at the park entrance above Walnut Creek would hold together.
Gaebert had also hoped repairs would be finished to reopen the Mount Diablo summit deck, a popular tourist spot for taking in panoramic views.
It didn't happen. Completion has been delayed until early 2013.
But Gaebert isn't bitter. He said he considered much of his job was managing scarce resources and making a case to higher-ups for maintenance money. Tight money, Gaebert said, comes with the state parks territory. It has been a test in adaptability,
Now 66, Gaebert was an amateur bike racer who competed in two Olympic road race trials in the 1960s.
He also was a flight instructor, a mountain search-and-rescue patrol member, a river rafting guide, an amateur ham radio operator, and an Air Force military police officer.
As a young boy, he didn't speak English when he emigrated with his family from Germany to San Diego County in 1954. He soon become the only white child in an Indian reservation school class.
"The first words I learned were 'shut up,'" he recalled. "I had zero English. I watched 'Meet the Press' on TV to get exposed to the language."
He learned English, got a college accounting degree, and rose in the banking industry to manage a large loan program financing projects such as shopping centers and subdivisions.
At late hours some nights, he would hike up and down mountains on search-and-rescue missions and return home just in time to shower and get to the bank for its opening.
In 1996 at age 51, he heard the call of the wild and took an offer to enroll in the state ranger academy program.
"I always liked camping and being in the outdoors, and I could see trouble ahead for the banking industry," he said.
He worked his way up from ranger to manager. Four years ago, he got the assignment to become superintendent of Mt. Diablo State Park, where he has lived in a small cottage.
"I think Roland does a good job of holding things together in a difficult financial situation," said Bob Doyle, the general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District.
Gaebert said he enjoyed the scenery and the variety of people and environment in the 20,000-acre mountain wilderness surrounded by Contra Costa County suburbs.
On a Sunday in early December, his maintenance crews had to dig and scrape away several mudslides across roads that closed the park.
At other times, park employees must review requests from people who want to spread relatives' cremated remains on the mountain.
On Dec. 7, Gaebert used both hands to help out in an unusual situation in the summit visitor center.
During a crowded Pearl Harbor memorial ceremony, a Coast Guard admiral couldn't hold both her notes and a portable microphone while giving the keynote speech. The center has no lectern.
Gaebert didn't hesitate, taking hold of the notes and turning them page by page as the admiral spoke.
"Sometimes," Gaebert said, laughing, "you've got to improvise."
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.
Residence: Lived on Mount Diablo; moved to Southern California
Occupation: Retiring Mt. Diablo State Park superintendent
Quote: "Working in a state park means you always have a backlog of maintenance and projects that there isn't money to get to. You have to get creative."