Jones Beach State Park director looks back before retiring
Directing traffic at a sold-out Van Halen concert at the Jones Beach Theater; placating a walker angry at having found litter on the boardwalk; clearing 91,000 people off the beach in advance of a fast-moving late afternoon thunderstorm; aiding a patron who forgot where she parked her car; showing a new hire the best way to clean the misty mirrors on a restroom wall (the secret: spritz a little water on the mirror and wipe it off with a paper towel).
For Sue Guliani, director of Jones Beach State Park, it's all in a week's work.
Guliani, 61, recently concluded her final summer season at Jones Beach as she prepares to retire at the end of the year. Since being named director in 2003, she is the first woman and only the seventh person to hold the job -- informally referred to as the Mayor of Jones Beach -- in the park's 86-year history.
"It's a great job and I'm very thankful to have it," Guliani said. "But it is challenging."
John Norbeck would second that. From 1983 to 1993, he was director of operations at the park, which annually attracts 6 million visitors.
"It's really like being in charge of a self-sustaining city," said Norbeck, of Cold Spring Harbor. He later served as regional director for all state parks on Long Island. "You're responsible for the welfare of hundreds of thousands of people every day. Anything can happen."
Indeed, Guliani has presided over a facility in transition, and occasionally turmoil.
Except for special events, such as the Bethpage Air Show on Memorial Day weekend or the newly reinstituted July Fourth fireworks, fewer of those who visit the iconic oceanfront park in Wantagh live on Long Island. As it was in its earliest days, the beach on weekends is now primarily a refuge for people escaping the heat and crowds of New York City.
"This provides a great outlet," Guliani said. "It's an opportunity to be out in the fresh air."
Guliani's job, as she sees it, is to make that outing as pleasant as possible by maintaining a clean, well-running facility.
"Sue knows her job," said her boss, George Gorman, New York State Parks deputy regional director. "She lives and breathes Jones Beach."
Backing her workforce
During her tenure, Guliani's responsibilities have included weathering a few major crises: superstorm Sandy in October 2012; and the Trump on the Ocean catering hall and restaurant fiasco that officially ended after Sandy. Her staff of 470 people is at least half the size it was when she started working at Jones Beach as a seasonal employee in 1977, yet most of the challenges have been met in part because of Guliani's unwavering belief in her workforce, most of which is part-time seasonal employees.
"I like to be supportive," Guliani said. "I don't want to micromanage." Above all, "I want them to take pride in the park."
She certainly does. "Just to be in this position is still amazing to me," added Guliani, who has seen major demographic and cultural shifts among her co-workers over the years. "When I started it was mostly men," she recalled. "But you kind of win over their support by showing them you're a decent person and a good worker. Plus, I grew up here!"
Guliani, a native of Syosset, is part of a generation of Long Islanders for whom regular visits to Jones Beach were as much a part of childhood as Good Humor ice cream and Top 40 radio.
As she recalls it, on summer afternoons in the 1960s, her father, Richard, who worked an early shift at the Sperry plant in Lake Success, would get home at precisely 3:40 p.m. He and his wife, Dorothy, would gather their children -- Sue and her brothers, Rick, who's older than her, and Robert, who is younger -- along with the dinners Dorothy had cooked that afternoon, and drive down to Jones Beach. At the West End ballfield, the Guliani family would swim, then eat dinner and watch the softball games. Guliani giggles at the memory of breaking park rules by using the dugouts to change out of their bathing suits before the teams arrived.
In the summer of 1976, her brother Robert got a part-time job as a pool attendant in the West Bathhouse at Jones Beach. Guliani, who had just graduated from Adelphi University in Garden City with a degree in physical education, was off for the summer and volunteered to drive Robert, who had been paralyzed in a swimming accident when he was 16. She would drop him off and then spend the day enjoying the beach. When her brother returned to his beach job the following summer, Guliani, half-jokingly, asked one of her brother's supervisors, "Do you have a job for me, too?"
The answer was yes, and Guliani began the first of three summers cleaning bathrooms, painting, landscaping and picking up trash. "All the things the seasonal workers still do," she said. "At the end of every summer they'd ask me, 'Do you want to stay?' No. 'Do you want to stay?' No. Finally, I said, 'Yeah, why not?' "
Guliani became a full-time employee in 1980. She was a maintenance supervisor, an entry-level position that involved managing day-to-day operations at the East Bathhouse. She said she hadn't thought of making parks her career -- she wanted to teach girls' physical education -- nor did she envision becoming the first woman to manage the 2,400-acre state park she had enjoyed all her life.
"She's a great role model," said Mindy Davidson, event director for the Marcum Workplace Challenge, an annual corporate fitness event held at Jones Beach in July that draws nearly 10,000 people. "She commands a lot of respect without being overbearing. She's a pleasure to work with."
Rewards and challenges
Inevitably, some aspects of her work are not as enjoyable. Guliani must manage the sometimes competing needs of the many organizations that have a stake in the park: State Park Police, the Coast Guard, Nassau County Department of Health, not to mention the Jones Beach Lifeguard Corps, a proud (and unionized) group of about 500 members with its own long tradition that doesn't always include harmonious relationships with management.
Guliani earned their respect. Bob Lenti, now 68 and retired in Fredericksburg, Virginia, was a Jones Beach lifeguard from 1964 to 2005. For the last decade of his time with the group, he was union president, which meant frequent interactions with Guliani on lifeguard operations and disciplinary issues.
"She was open-minded, she would listen, and she would ultimately arrive at a fair solution," Lenti said. "I'd find myself saying, 'I can't really argue with that!' "
But there were some major issues beyond Guliani's control, including the battle over the restaurant current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wanted at the beach; and budget and staffing cuts, which were handled at the regional and state level.
A good example of Guliani's resourcefulness has been her ability to maintain Jones Beach's standards of cleanliness with less staff. She developed a sort of "litter triage" procedure, in which the most popular areas of the beach -- starting with the much-used Field 6, which is closest to the water and is where the boardwalk starts -- were cleaned first, and the lesser-used fields were last.
Guliani is not above joining her workers on the job. "I still help clean up trash in a pinch," she said. "I'm not better than anyone else."
Rebounding from Sandy
Guliani said the proudest moment of her tenure was her staff's response to superstorm Sandy, which hit Long Island on Oct. 29, 2012.
"I'd never seen such damage," she recalled when she toured the park the day after the storm.
While outside contractors made repairs on the buildings that had been damaged and rebuilt the boardwalk, her staff "worked feverishly to clean up the park," Guliani said. Enormous amounts of debris had washed up on the beach. Signs and structures on the boardwalk were damaged or destroyed. The softball fields had to be restored. Fragile dune areas needed to be protected, stabilized and marked off by snow fences to prevent further damage.
Yet, seven months later, Jones Beach was open for business and able to hold the annual air show on Memorial Day weekend. "I was so proud of our staff," Guliani said.
In December, Guliani will say goodbye to those workers. She has already begun the wind-down. "It just seems like the right time," Guliani said of her retirement.
Still, she's not leaving without regrets. Although details have not been finalized, State Parks is planning a new "marketplace" on the site of the old boardwalk restaurant -- an area now referred to as the East Mall -- that would include an assortment of so-called "grab-and-go" eateries and specialty options. Guliani said she would have preferred to have seen a new dine-in restaurant at Jones Beach.
"I think the public would like that," she said. "That's the kind of place where a lot of people I know would go with guests from out of town or other countries to show them Jones Beach. And it is the perfect location, right on the boardwalk near Central Mall, the Broadway of Jones Beach."
Guliani said she also hopes her successor, and the state, will continue the commitment to maintain what Guliani calls "the old whimsical favorites" at the beach: the vintage 1930s signs and other Art Deco touches that, along with its epic scale and signature bathhouses and water tower, made Jones Beach State Park an architectural as well as aesthetic triumph.
As to who that successor is, the final say will be the state's, based in part on Civil Service exam results, but Guliani is rooting for her deputy, Kevin Connelly. Like his boss, Connelly also started as a seasonal worker at Jones Beach. He has been assistant park director since 2003.
"He has a wealth of knowledge and outstanding abilities," Guliani said. "He's the logical choice."
Though she will soon no longer have an office on the Central Mall, or the honorary mayor title, or the State Park-provided house on the park's West End (she's moving into a condo in Amityville), there is no doubt where she will spend some of her post-retirement summers.
"I came to Jones Beach as a kid," Guliani said. "I'll still come back when I'm retired."