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Obituary: Retired Park Service official worked to improve environment

After service in Vietnam, John Byrne followed passion for conservation
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Oakton resident John Byrne, an Army veteran who later had a long career with the National Park Service, died Aug. 31, 2023, at age 82.

Following his military service during the Vietnam War, Oakton resident John Byrne enjoyed a long National Park Service career and remained active in environmental matters.

Byrne “was a man of service, intellect, and [to] those of us who knew him, heart-warming sense of humor,” Fairfax Supervisor Dalia Palchik (D-Providence) said in a tribute at the start of the Board of Supervisors’ Sept. 12 meeting.

Byrne died at his Oakton home Aug. 31 at age of 82 after suffering from multiple ailments, said his wife, Linda Byrne.

John Francis Byrne was born Feb. 9, 1941, in Kingston, N.Y., and earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Drexel University in Philadelphia.

He worked on highways in California after college, then served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, where he led a bomb-disposal unit. Byrne’s team disarmed more than 1 million explosive devices and he received an individual award for defusing more than 25,000 himself, his wife said.

Byrne rarely talked about this hair-raising and sometimes gruesome work before the couple married, she said.

“It was very hard, because you’d go into the fields where soldiers had been and ordnances would explode,” she said. “He said, ‘We would have to go back in and pick up the body parts.’ He said that was just so awful.”

Byrne for a time also taught the bomb-disposal course at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head Division, in Maryland.

He served in the Army for three years and was discharged at the final rank of captain. After returning from Vietnam, where he had been exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange, he went to Drexel University again on the GI Bill and got a master’s degree in environmental engineering.

Byrne subsequently worked for the National Park Service. He wished to help craft the Clean Air Act, but first had to obtain a law degree, which he did from American University.

During his National Park Service career, Byrne and his wife were posted to Denver, Yosemite National Park (where he was assistant superintendent) and Mount Rainier. Byrne often led teams that worked on parks’ master plans. He served 10 years as superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway and another decade as manager of the Appalachian Trail, his wife said.

After retiring, Byrne was a global consultant on environmental conservation, a volunteer committee chairman for the Sierra Club and a professor at George Mason University.

“His work not only preserved natural beauty for future generations, but also educated countless visitors on the importance of conservation,” Palchik said. “His penchant for light-hearted jokes endeared him to all. Alongside his love for the outdoors, John and Linda had a profound affection for knowledge. The Oakton Library was his sanctuary, where he nourished his insatiable intellectual curiosity.”

Byrne’s wife confirmed this, saying her husband went to the library daily to read the New York Times and do its crossword puzzle. The family hopes to plant a tree at the library in his honor, she said.

Byrne and his family built a home in Hunters Valley in 1985 and lived there for 19 years. The family especially enjoyed the area’s bridle trails and equestrian amenities.

Byrne met his wife when she served as his equestrian instructor in 1968.

“Horseback riding was very important to him,” she said. “I’m trying to set up pony rides at [Oakton Community Park] on National Make a Difference Day in October.”

Provided she can obtain appropriate insurance, Linda Byrne hopes children will be able to ride a friend’s three ponies in a genuine equestrian experience on the park’s trail, instead merely of being led around in circles.

In 2003, the family moved 2 miles away to Oakton, just three doors down from Linda Byrne’s mother.

For more than 15 years, John Byrne cooked dinners for his mother-in-law each evening and carried them to her house, where they ate and played Mexican Train, a domino game.

Byrne is survived by his wife, Linda, of Oakton; daughter Liz of Bothel, Wash.; son Jack of Silver Spring; three sisters; and two brothers. He was predeceased by a brother.

Byrne’s ashes will be spread at a national park and the family in the future will hold a celebration of his life, his wife said. Donations should be made to the National Park Foundation.