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Long Island tour guides bring museums, attractions to life

Summer may summon thoughts of beaches and parks, but it is also peak season for Long Island’s mansions, gardens and museums. A legion of mostly volunteer guides leads thousands of people on tours across the region. On June 20, Apollo 11 historian Sam Koeppel took visitors on a tour of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City. (Credit: Newsday / Morgan Campbell, Shelby Knowles)

Grace Miedzwiecki is often on the top the world — after climbing dozens of steps to get there. At age 84 with salt-and-pepper hair, Miedzwiecki at 5-foot-4 seems a lot taller from the 134th step of the Montauk Lighthouse, her frequent perch.

“When the people come up after me, huffing and puffing, they ask, ‘Did you take the elevator?’ I say, ‘No, it’s broken,’” she joked about ascending the 110-foot lighthouse. “And you know something. They believe there is an elevator. “There is not.”

If Miedzwiecki navigates the steps with relative ease, that’s because she’s been doing it for 11 years as a guide — or docent. Whether it’s 100 children (divided into groups of 15) from Phillips Avenue Elementary School in Riverhead or travelers from around the world, she helps bring the lighthouse and Long Island to life.

Summer may summon thoughts of beaches and parks, but it also is peak season for the Island’s mansions, gardens and museums. Miedzwiecki is among the legion of mostly volunteer guides who lead thousands of people on tours across the region.

“What makes a good tour guide? You have to want to be here,” said Henry Osmers, the Montauk Lighthouse Museum’s assistant director. “The lighthouse is a national historic landmark, and we all take pride in that. Someone coming in here should take that same pride in representing a landmark.”

Osmers, who has written five books about the lighthouse and Montauk, trains lighthouse tour guides who inform and improvise.

“There’s no script. They study the material and roll with it,” said Osmers, who lives in Shirley.

Here we share the stories of five Long Islanders who bring to life a handful of Island landmarks — the lighthouse, the African American Museum of Nassau County, the Cradle of Aviation Museum, Old Westbury Gardens and Suffolk County’s Vanderbilt Museum.

Sam Koeppel

Cradle of Aviation

Sam Koeppel doesn’t just bring history to life: The Floral Park resident has lived it. He joined Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. in August 1960, working on designs for images of early spacecraft, including those of Apollo. He left Grumman in 1984 as head of the presentations department. Then he ran his own typesetting and editing business, retiring in the mid-1990s.

“The Cradle was perfect connective tissue to my experience,” said Koeppel, who became a docent in 2002. “I found out that the museum was becoming a viable component of the Long Island scene.”

The Cradle of Aviation, an aerospace museum that celebrates Long Island’s history of flight, is at the former Mitchel Air Force Base in Garden City. It initially opened in a small hangar in 1980, expanding to its current facility in 2002.

At the Cradle, Koeppel brings the perspective of someone who worked in aviation, supplementing history with his own stories about the July 20, 1969, moon landing and more.

“It’s a different performance each time, because each person is different,” he said of his tours. “Sometimes I get technically oriented people, so I can go deeper.”

In an area known as the “Clean Room,” for example, he likes to explain prints of the lunar module made before a design change for the landing.

“There are probes that touch the moon’s surface on the aircraft’s four legs,” Koeppel said about how the prints on display differ from the lunar landers, including the one first used on Apollo 11. “The only problem is there were only three when the spacecraft landed.”

The astronauts demanded the probe on one front leg be removed so they couldn’t trip or risk tearing a spacesuit, he explained.

Along with such technical knowledge, he brings enthusiasm to his job. “I can hear [President John F.] Kennedy’s voice in my ear constantly. And I can see him,” Koeppel said, recalling the president’s plan to land on the moon. “The Kennedy era was a very special one. I can’t believe the country would have been energized by anything else.”

Ellen Mason

Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum

As Ellen Mason, 69, of Stony Brook, sees it, she studied and loved “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald — and now she gets to live a bit in that world.

Mason taught English at Centereach High School, in the Middle Country Central School District, from 1971 to 2005, with “Gatsby” among her lesson plans. She started volunteering as a docent at the Vanderbilt mansion in May 2006.

“When I taught ‘The Great Gatsby,’ I was the go-to girl for information about the North Shore of Long Island and the estates,” she said.

The Vanderbilt Museum is the former home of William Kissam Vanderbilt II, great-grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt who assembled a multimillion-dollar fortune from railroads and steamships. “Willie,” as he was known to family, bought 43 acres in Centerport to build a 24-room Spanish Revival mansion between 1927 and 1936. The museum opened in 1950; the adjacent planetarium was built in 1970.

After retiring, Mason received an offer she couldn’t refuse: A friend asked if she’d like to “spend some time in a mansion on the North Shore, knowing I’m crazy about ‘The Great Gatsby.’ ”

Mason replied: “’What do I have to do?’”

She is part of the Vanderbilt’s “living history” tours, for which five guides dress in costume to bring to life a theme. Mason has played Sonja Henie, the Olympic skater and movie star; Phyllis Astaire, dancer Fred Astaire’s wife; Ellin Berlin, wife of composer Irving Berlin; and Ruby Ross Wood, a prominent interior decorator beginning in the 1920s.

This year’s “living history” theme is the 80th anniversary of 1939 New York World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. The museum is displaying fair memorabilia, and docents portray historical figures connected to the fair and the home. Among others, Mason portrays Millicent Hearst, William Randolph Hearst’s wife, who is listed in the museum’s archives as having been a guest of the family.

“Anyone pulls out a cellphone, we make a comment, like ‘What on earth is that?’ ” she said. “It’s supposed to be 1939.”

Joysetta Pearse

African American Museum of Nassau County

Joysetta Pearse isn’t only director of the African American Museum of Nassau County in Hempstead, she’s the primary tour guide.

The county-run museum, founded in 1984, is dedicated to illuminating African American history and figures.

The museum showcases such permanent collections as “It’s Eclectic! Sculptures and Artifacts from Africa and the Diaspora,” as well as such current exhibits as “Eubie’s Corner,” memorabilia of Hubert “Eubie” Blake (including the famed musician and composer’s piano) and “Women of NASA.”

While some exhibits may touch on well-known African American history, that is not the focus.

“There’s a lot of hidden history not in our history books,” said Pearse, 80, of Freeport. “They’re not going to see Rosa Parks in a full exhibit. She’s mentioned here.”

Pearse helped create an exhibit dedicated to 18 people honored in Black Heritage stamps. Another is devoted to Elizabeth Jennings Graham, who helped desegregate New York City public transportation when she refused to leave a trolley in 1854.

“They never heard of her before,” Pearse said of visitors’ learning of Jennings Graham. “Ask someone who desegregated public transportation in New York City, they won’t give you an answer.”

After working for 17 years at Verizon, where she was a staff director, Pearse retired in 1990. She volunteered at the museum from 1989 through 2012, originally helping “people research their roots.”

She has done her own genealogy, for instance, finding that her grandfather is from Ireland and her grandmother is from Virginia. Her family history also intersects with the museum.

“We have an exhibit of Eubie Blake,” she said. “My brother [Bernard J. Marsh] starred in the play ‘Eubie!’ on Broadway and is in a photograph with him.”

Pearse, the former president of the Genealogy Federation of Long Island, said saving history means opening peoples’ eyes to parts of the past that would otherwise be forgotten. “It increases your self-esteem, when you know your history,” she said of tours she leads.

Ed Nolan

Old Westbury Gardens

Clad in comfortable moccasins, Ed Nolan walks through Old Westbury Gardens very much at home.

Nolan, 72, explained that he has been coming to Old Westbury Gardens “since high school” and in the 1960s “used to bring dates.”

Old Westbury Gardens is the former estate of John Shaffer Phipps and Margarita Grace Phipps. John was the son of Howard Phipps, a partner of Andrew Carnegie at Carnegie Steel Corp., which later became U.S. Steel. Margarita was the daughter of Michael Grace, of Grace Shipping Lines.

The family lived there from 1907 until 1958. When John Phipps died in 1958, the house was willed to his daughter, Peggie. At the time she lived next door at Orchard Hill and founded Old Westbury Gardens, opening the grounds to the public in 1959 and the house in 1960.

“It’s one of the few houses that has all the furnishings, all the paintings,” Nolan said. “They decided people would be interested in seeing the house with all its belongings.”

The grounds — the main event for the season as the house is closed for repairs until November — include formal gardens, woodlands, a rose garden, children’s play garden, a lilac walk and a primrose path. 

As a docent, Nolan said, humor is part of the prescription for a fun tour. He noted that “olds,” such as Old Westbury, actually got their names after their namesakes. “Old Westbury and Old Brookville were new,” Nolan added.

Hollywood apparently loves Old Westbury Gardens, too, he likes to explain: The original and remake of “Arthur” were shot there, as was “Hitch,” the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Cruel Intentions,” “American Gangster” and more.

Nolan also sprinkles his tours with personal experience, recounting to visitors how he saw someone familiar in the distance, only to realize it was actress and model Brooke Shields being filmed in a commercial.

Grace Miedzwiecki

Montauk Lighthouse

In addition to questions about the Montauk Lighthouse, tourists ask Grace Miedzwiecki at least one personal question she’s happy to answer.

“They want to know if I was brought up in Montauk,” she said. “I go into details about how I got here, starting with the summer house.”

Miedzwiecki and her husband, who died last year, had a summer house in Montauk beginning in 1979 while they lived in upstate Rockland County.

“I used to see it every time we came out here,” she said. “I never really went into it, but I collected little figurines of this lighthouse and other lighthouses.”

The lighthouse tower was built in 1796 and the house with the keeper’s quarters was built in 1860; it became a museum in 1986.

After she retired from her job as a receptionist at AT&T Wireless in 2002 and moved to Montauk, she quickly became a guide.

“I exercise in the morning with weights. I do an awful lot of walking,” Miedzwiecki said. “I wear my sneakers down to the bone. I do this to keep fit, so I can still climb.”

The lighthouse, maintained by the Montauk Historic Society, has a caretaker who lives on site. Miedzwiecki said visitors are often "shocked" that the lighthouse still functions.

Miedzwiecki has led tours for visitors from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, as well as India, China, Japan, Indonesia, Italy and other nations.

“I love meeting people from all over the world. I end up in all of these countries via camera. They take my picture,” Miedzwiecki said. “I say to them, ‘What country am I going to this time?' ”

She frequently climbs the 134 steps open to the public, but occasionally takes three additional steps to the top to close vents during bad weather.

“From the 134th step, you get a full view of the ocean,” she said. “You can see Connecticut, if you turn to the left. On a clear day, you can see Block Island.”

Guide to the guides

Tourism is a huge industry on Long Island, from beaches and golf courses to mansions and museums. About 9 percent of traveler spending in 2017 across New York State was on Long Island, second only to New York City’s 65 percent, according to the Economic Impact of Tourism in New York.

“There are people from almost every state in the United States, European countries, South America,” said Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial affairs and who supervises tour guides at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport. “They’re from everywhere.”

While Long Island may not have many monuments, it has its share of mansions and museums. Nearly 350,000 people last year visited the Cradle of Aviation, which served another 30,000 through special events. More than 100,000 people visited the Montauk Lighthouse, and about 80,000 people visited Old Westbury Gardens

The Cradle of Aviation Museum has 250 volunteer guides, or docents, while Old Westbury Gardens has around 30, and the Vanderbilt has 15, roughly the same number as the Montauk Lighthouse.

“For the most part, they’re associated with Grumman, the old Grumman team,” Mike Lisa, the Cradle’s volunteer coordinator, said about its guides. “I worked for Grumman for 36 years from ’63 to 2009.”

Guides, whether volunteer or paid, come from many walks of life: They’re retired police, doctors, mechanics, engineers and principals. Many guides at the Vanderbilt are former English or history teachers, although engineers, pharmacists and others fill the ranks.

“You have to be bookish, someone who enjoys reading about history and likes to impart it to other people with enthusiasm,” Gress said.

Ellen Mason, a retired teacher who is a guide at the Vanderbilt, said education is an element, but entertainment comes first. “They want to learn about the house, the Vanderbilts, the characters,” she said.

Guides humanize history, taking tours beyond books and buildings, filling halls and walks with stories — and now and then a sense of humor.

“You have to be personable, think on your feet, be funny, and love history,” Gress added. Many guides, she said, are “lovers of history.”

While the places are the stars, guides often have a personal connection to each place or the community.

For Ed Nolan, a volunteer guide at Old Westbury Gardens, being a docent is a family affair. His wife, Susan, is also volunteer guide, and his daughter, Elizabeth, is on staff as a visitor services associate.

Susan visited the gardens in 1982 and became a volunteer soon after.

“She was the first one involved with Old Westbury Gardens,” he said. “I met her that year and went to the gardens, where I’d been many times before. The person in charge asked me if I wanted to get involved, and I started in 1983.”

Their daughter, Elizabeth, 19, volunteered on and off until last year, then becoming a staff member.

“When she was a toddler and could barely talk, my wife would go there with her,” Nolan said. “Elizabeth would kind of ask the other ladies why they were in her house.”

After Miedzwiecki retired to Montauk from her job at AT&T Wireless, it was a friend who got her to the lighthouse.

“I had a friend over for dinner who worked in the lighthouse gift shop. She told me they needed tour guides,” she said. “When we came out here, I saw it from the outside. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was gung-ho.”

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