In a matter of weeks, one of Cameron Park’s most well-known treasures will be moving on.
On June 30, his 24-year work anniversary with the park, mounted park ranger Lanny French will hang up his spurs, at least professionally.
When asked what he will do once he retires, French answered quickly, with a straight face, “bathing suit model in Hawaii.”
“If that doesn’t work out, and I know what you’re thinking and why it wouldn’t, then I’m probably going to continue to ride horses,” he said with a laugh.
For many people, French is the friendly face on horseback ensuring park visitors are safe. To his co-workers, he is an invaluable resource, a walking history of the past two decades at Cameron Park, and a trusted confidant.
“I have my entire job and career thanks to Mr. French,” said Kim Jennings, park ranger supervisor and a French protégé. “Without him I wouldn’t be standing here.”
As a full-time farrier, or horseshoer, French did work for the city, including working with the parks department’s horses. By 1994 he had made the transition to full-time park ranger.
Sally French, his wife of 33 years, said her husband still wakes up every morning excited to go to work.
“He’s always loved his job,” she said. “He’s always excited. He always looks forward to it, so it kept him so energized. There’s never a day that he woke up and said ‘oh I don’t want to do this job.’ He always strived and hoped that he made a difference every day that he went to work.”
Lanny French’s work motto, his key to his personal professional success, is simply to care, he said.
“I think the thing that matters in any job is caring,” he said. “You can’t be made to care, that’s what’s interesting about it, but you can learn to care. So I’ve really cared about the job, the park, the people and the horses. Just that alone will really take you pretty far down the road.”
In caring for the park for the past 24 years, French made a lot of friends and influenced a lot of lives.
“Lanny is probably one of the most influential people in my life when I look back on it,” said Kevin Morris, a former Cameron Park ranger.
As a Baylor University student, Morris worked with French between 1997 and 2000, riding the trails, cleaning up horse manure and talking about life.
“Being a college kid at the time, Lanny was probably the most accepting person I had ever encountered,” Morris said. “I credit his openness to really getting me through a tough period of life. He was so humble. I always knew he was there. He just made space for you to fully be yourself.”
Morris described French as a “saint,” detailing a story about how French anonymously donated food and clothing to a homeless man named Chris who had tried to make a home in Cameron Park.
“I got to see how Lanny modeled care and humanity toward people who were not doing so well, and it was something that I adopted in watching him,” he said.
French gave the park a personality, Morris said.
“I can just picture his face and it’s just so synonymous for me with Cameron Park,” he said. “I would love for him to know the difference that he’s made, not only in the park but in the lives of the people that he encountered.”
To say that French loves horses would be an understatement.
“(The horses) were like part of his family and part of his life,” Sally French said. “He spent so much time with the horses, he’d work weekends a lot of times to care for them, and if one of the horses was sick, he had to make sure they were taken care of. It’s like having a child more or less. They were part of him.”
French grew up around horses in Bellmead.
“In the French and Blackburn families, you always had horses,” French’s cousin Dale Blackburn said. “You always had something to ride. He was probably riding before he could walk.”
The relationship Lanny French has with his horses is hard to describe, he said.
“I can’t explain it,” French said. “It’s too deep to explain. I don’t know what it is. There’s something there though. I just don’t have the words to explain it.”
As part of his ranger duties, Lanny cares for the horses, right now it’s Pete, a 9-year-old American paint.
“It’s a lot of responsibility to take care of them,” he said. “It’s kind of like being a dairy farmer. You’re always worried about them even when you’re not there, making sure they’re getting fed and watered and being cared for the way they are supposed to.”
French often gave up holidays to care for the park’s horses.
“Lanny really takes to heart the horses if there’s an illness or an injury, you know. Lanny spent the night over here before, taking care of a sick horse,” Jennings said. “So he really does take it personally and he has a lot of pride in his job and we’re really sad to see him go, along with his wealth and experience and knowledge. You just can’t replace that.”
As the longest-serving mounted park ranger at Cameron Park, French has seen the area change in more ways than one.
“We were hired at first to be basically ambassadors to the city welcoming people into Cameron Park,” said Nora Schell, one of the park’s original rangers and now coordinator of the Lake Waco Wetlands. “This was when, in the early ’90s, Cameron Park had a really bad reputation for criminal activities and things like that. It was kind of ghostly at times, and it is so different now.”
French said his favorite days on the job were simply the “ordinary” ones.
“The best day to me is just an ordinary plain Jane day,” he said. “Just the ordinary days where nothing bad happened in the park and you just came in and you did your job.”
But the bad days stick with him, he said.
“The worst experiences are when you lose somebody in the park,” French said. “Those aren’t good days. Anytime anything bad happens in the park — to me I’ve always been concerned about the public safety in our park, that’s been my focus more so than a lot of things that we do. I take it really personally if something happens to somebody in the park. Boy I don’t like it. I carry that on my shoulders, because you know it’s our job to try to keep that from happening.”
Jennings said French’s presence made the park a safer place to be.
“He’s highly visible, and a lot of times deterring crime is just being present,” she said. “If people know that they’re being watched, they’re less likely to commit a crime.”
Waco Bicycle Club President Trent Dougherty said he felt comforted knowing his family was in good hands when visiting the park.
“There’s the real safety factor that he provided. … You just feel safe because this guy could chase somebody down,” he said. “You can’t have cameras everywhere, but knowing that he had his eye out there and could cover a lot of ground just made you feel safer for yourself and your loved ones.”
Although many people wish he would stay a little longer, 59-year-old French said the time just feels right.
“You know, it’s just a good time,” he said. “I’ve done everything I need to do. I can do it (retire) now. It’s just time to turn it over and get some young blood in here.”
His wife said she looks forward to him being home.
In retirement, French said he plans to continue training horses and caring for his four personal horses, including Chico, his longtime companion and a former park horse. He also plans on making afternoon naps part of his routine.
“I’m finally going to be one of those people who can get up and ride early in the morning and then nap in the middle of the day,” he said with a laugh.
The transition to retirement is tough but has been a long time coming, French said.
“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “It’s kind of been like a death. It’s like going to your own funeral and you get to hear everything everybody says about you. I have made so many friends, just hundreds and hundreds of people.
“If you’re a regular during daytime hours I know you. I will miss that. I’ll miss working with all the people here and certainly I’ll miss Pete.”
In the end, French said he hopes people will remember his sense of humor.
Some may even remember him as the goat man.
“You know there’s a myth late at night that there’s goat man down at the park, you know he’s goat body and a man top,” French said smiling under a well-worn cowboy hat. “Well it was a summer day and I was coming around a corner on the River Trail, and there were three neighborhood kids up here on a bike. It was a hot day and the horse had his head dropped down, and that kid saw me and just skidded that bike to a stop.
“And I guess all he could see was my upper body and the body of the horse and he said, ‘It’s the goat man!’ and I trotted around the corner to talk to those kids, but all you could see was a cloud of dust and I never saw them in the park again. So I guess I am the goat man.”