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Gotham Gigs: A park ranger at Ellis Island discovers her own family's history


HINDSIGHT: Even after 20 years, Simonelli still gets a thrill helping others discover their past. PHOTO: Buck Ennis

By HILARY POTKEWITZ

As a ranger with the National Park Service, Danelle Simonelli sports a uniform five days a week: green pants, a Smokey Bear hat and a safari shirt with a shoulder patch featuring a snow-capped peak, a sequoia tree and an American bison. Never mind that the park where she works doesn’t have mountains or redwoods or buffalo. In fact, the highest elevation visitors can reach is a viewing platform roughly 265 feet above New York Harbor.

Simonelli is one of 70 park rangers who preside over the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island. One of her main responsibilities is leading public and private tours. With more than 20 years on the job, the Bronx native has emerged as the go-to genealogy expert for the park’s 4 million yearly visitors.

“It doesn’t get old for me,” she says. “I love walking people through the footsteps of the immigrants who came here—especially when they are looking for their own family history.”

And her passion is personal: In her early years as a ranger, Simonelli combed through the National Archives and discovered that her grandparents—Giovanni Battista Simonelli and Francesca Pierdomenico—came through Ellis Island from Italy in 1920. They were in their early 20s and expecting their first child. “I learned more about my grandparents’ experience from working here than I ever did growing up,” she said.

Simonelli’s father played clarinet for the New York City Opera and her mother was a church choir director. Her childhood saw plenty of late nights huddled with her family in the orchestra pit watching her father play concerts.

In school, she studied international relations and headed to Washington, D.C., for her first career, in the educational-publishing industry. On weekends, she was a volunteer docent at the Smithsonian museums. She preferred the museum job, and around age 40, she quit publishing to work as an interpretive ranger at historical parks.

“Even though I’m saying roughly the same thing every tour, it’s always the visitors’ first time,” she says. Simonelli still recalls her own “Aha!” moment when she found her grandparents’ names on a steamship passenger manifest.

“The ship was called the Giuseppe Verdi, after the Italian composer,” she says. “It was almost like a prediction about the son they would go on to have.”

Gotham Gigs: Danelle Simonelli

BORN The Bronx AGE 61 RESIDES Parsippany, N.J. EDUCATION B.A. in international studies, Vassar College; M.A. in international affairs, Georgetown University BUCKET LIST Although she’s 
visited national parks throughout the Northeast and Southeast, Simonelli has yet to go west, and is looking forward to seeing Yosemite and Yellowstone. CLIMBING TO THE TOP A Liberty Island ranger’s daily duties include climbing the 354 steps to patrol the statue’s crown. “Now that I’m working on Ellis Island,” she said, “I need to find a new fitness routine.”

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