The Woman Who Says When D.C.'s Cherry Trees Bloom

It is a sunny Tuesday in East Potomac Park, and Catherine Dewey and I are visiting a tree. It's a slim, feathery Okame cherry, the only one of its kind in the area. Dewey is the new chief of resource management for the National Mall and Memorial Parks unit of the National Park Service, and she and natural-resource specialist Mary Willeford Bair are discussing the fine art of predicting the window of peak bloom for Washington's annual cherry-blossom festival—a high-stakes bit of prognostication. Tourists plan costly vacations around the event, and if the predictions are even a few days off, hundreds of thousands of visitors will miss the phenomenon entirely. To come up with the correct dates, the team responsible relies on this single tree—the first cherry that blooms in the park. The "indicator tree" flowers a full seven to 14 days ahead of the Yoshino cherry trees at the Tidal Basin, and that information, coupled with the anticipated temperatures, provides the team with all the data it needs to make the important annual estimate.

Catherine Dewey is the chief of the division of resources management at the National Mall. (Chet Susslin)Dewey tells me she is learning a lot from team members like Willeford Bair about their respective areas of expertise—some of which are a far cry from her own. Before becoming acting chief of resource management in August 2014, Dewey was the historic-architecture program manager for the National Capital Regional Office of the National Park Service, where she did project management and "hands-on preservation work" for roughly 800 statues and buildings. Dewey, 43, still does some monument preservation in her current role, which she took on officially in April. But she also reports to the superintendent and other divisions of the National Park Service on all matters pertaining to natural and cultural resources on and around the National Mall. "I still protect resources," Dewey explains, "but not just stone buildings."

Born in Lake Zurich, a northwest suburb of Chicago, Dewey earned a bachelor's degree in classical antiquities from the University of Kansas. She wanted to go into archaeology, but a college adviser recommended she pursue archaeological-site conservation, she tells me, on the grounds that it was more practical. She picked up her first master's degree, in Egyptology, at the University of Chicago, before pursuing another, in historic preservation, at the University of Pennsylvania. Upon graduating, she moved to Egypt to do condition-assessment and conservation work on the 12th-century Ayyubid Wall in Cairo.

She was only in Egypt for a short time, but it was a formative one. A small tattoo on her left ankle spells out "cat" phonetically in Arabic. (Cats were considered sacred in ancient Egyptian society, and "Cat" is also Dewey's nickname.) Unfortunately, the double meaning was lost in translation. "It doesn't mean the furry little creature," she tells me.

A year later, Dewey was back in the states, at a small architecture firm in Chicago. The following year, she moved to the D.C. area for a job at a conservation firm. Then, in the early aughts, she went to work for the National Park Service. Initially placed with the National Capitol Regional Office, she has since served as acting chief ranger at the George Washington Memorial Parkway, acting chief of cultural-resources preservation services at the National Capital Regional Office, and acting cultural-resources program manager at National Capital Parks, among other roles.

Her list of current projects includes creating "a statue management plan," so that her team can keep track of which statues have been cleaned, the rehabilitation of Constitution Gardens and Franklin Park in Northwest D.C., and compliance work around tentative plans for an Eisenhower memorial statue and a Peace Corps monument. And, of course, attending to matters related to some of the more ephemeral parks resources—like managing the team that predicts D.C.'s Big Bloom.