Peter Harp, of Beesley's Point, went to interview for a job at the Hereford Island Lighthouse in North Wildwood about 13 years ago. Having recently sold the Tuckahoe Inn on the water overlooking the Beesley's Point bridge, which he and his family opened in 1963 and operated until 1997, the history buff was looking for something interesting to do.
He came away realizing he didn't want a job managing the lighthouse, which would be a lot of work. But he'd love to volunteer his time, especially if he could sing and play the banjo at the same time.
"I'm a ham. You just have to give me a platform," he said. So he worked up the character of the honorary lighthouse keeper, and wrote songs about the keeper's job. He plays the banjo and sings for visitors to break the ice before giving a tour, he said.
For the first few summers he volunteered a lot, wearing his uniform even in the heat of summer - actually a firefighter's dress uniform-almost the same as a keeper's uniform, he found out from research. Now, having become a broker associate for Berger Realty in Ocean City, the 72-year-old has less time to give. But he goes out and talks to groups around the state, and volunteers at big events like the lighthouse's Maritime Festival in July and the Lighthouse Challenge in October.
Volunteers at area lighthouses do everything from physical labor to scholarly research, keeping the places in good shape and interpreting their history for thousands of visitors each year. They work closely with small numbers of staff members at each site.
Often, the volunteers become staff members who also put in plenty of volunteer hours. And paid workers, who are instrumental in developing the properties, often go on to become dedicated volunteers after they retire.
Jane Johnson, 80, started out as a lighthouse volunteer when she moved to North Wildwood in 2002, she said. She moved back to Burlington City, Burlington County, to be closer to her children. Now, the retired telecommunications-company manager drives more than an hour each way to get to her part-time job as tour guide at Hereford Island Lighthouse, she said. She's paid for a small number of hours, but puts in many more, said Lighthouse Manager Betty Mugnier, 76.
For Frank Lescure, 79, volunteering at East Point Lighthouse at the mouth of the Maurice River near Heislerville in Maurice River Township, means physical labor. He's done everything from painting the oil house (for the oil-fired lens in the days before electricity), to cleaning the interior, repairing steps and mowing the lawn.
"I fished up and down that river since I was a kid," said the resident of Ewan, in Harrison Township, Gloucester County. "When I retired (in 1993 as a lab technician and project manager at RCA/GE in Camden), I bought a boat and used the lighthouse as a navigational aide. One day I decided to go see it. "
That visit was all it took. He was hooked as a volunteer, and he's been involved every since, he said.
At Cape May Point Lighthouse, run by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC), most of the jobs are done by staff members, said Communications Director Margo Harvey.
Part-time workers, like Rich Chiemingo, 63, of Cape May Point, also do a lot of volunteer work, she said.
Chiemingo, who was the paid Lighthouse manager for nine years, now works part-time in MAC's education department, Chiemingo said.
The retired New York City freelance musician volunteers his time working on a newsletter for the newly formed Friends of the Cape May Lighhouse group, he said. He is paid to do some educational talks to school kids and to tourists, but also provides lectures as a volunteer, he said.
Chiemingo, who retired to his family's summer home in Cape May Point 11 years ago, is also a volunteer fireman there, he said.
At Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, Steve Murray, 56, of Cape May Court House, provides another good example of a dedicated volunteer who made the transition from paid worker.
He retired in 2010 after 36 years as superintendent of parks in North Wildwood, he said. Since then, he's been a full-time volunteer. He cares for the award-winning gardens around the lighthouse, which he designed and installed himself over many years while working for the city. Of course, there were many volunteer hours involved then, too, he said.
Now, he still has the schedule of a full-time worker.
"I probably put in 40-50 hours here, plus work at home on things like grant writing," he said. He is also volunteer chairman of the Friends of Hereford Lighthouse.
Murray is finally accepting some volunteer help for taking care of the gardens, which have been profiled in national magazines like "Coastal Living," and "Victorian Homes," and in books like "Great Gardens of New Jersey." The gardens attract more visitors than the lighthouse itself, he said.
Karyl Palmer, 59, of North Wildwood, is about to complete her training as a Master Gardener through the Cooperative Extension of Cape May County. She has already started helping him weed, and plant annuals for the Victorian garden, that is also certified as a habitat garden by the National Wildlife Federation.
"I've learned a lot. He's a great teacher," she said of Murray.
Whether they do physical or educational work, Lighthouse volunteers say a love of the place, and a feeling of community with other volunteers and workers, keeps them involved.
"I've made great friends there," said East Point Lighthouse's Lescure. "Between love of the lighthouse and friends I've made there, it's not a chore."
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:
If you want to help
The lighthouses in our region are all looking for volunteers. Here is the contact information for each:
31 S. Rhode Island Ave., Atlantic City
Call Stephanie Carr 609-449-1360; www.abseconlighthouse.org
Broadway, Barnegat Light
Call Dianne Gormley 609-494-2016; njparksandforests.org/parks/barnlig.html
CAPE MAY LIGHTHOUSE
Cape May Point State Park, Lighthouse Road, Cape May Point
Call Barbara Hubmaster 609-884-5404 ext. 109; www.capemaymac.org/about/work/volunteer.html
EAST POINT LIGHTHOUSE
Lighthouse Road, Maurice Township
Call Al Smith 856-546-7810; www.eastpointlight.info/
Central and First avenues, North Wildwood
Call Betty Mugnier 609-522-4520; www.herefordlighthouse.org
TUCKER'S ISLAND REPLICA AT TUCKERTON SEAPORT
120 West Main St. (Route 9), Tuckerton.
Call Regina Pistilli 609-296-8868 ext. 114; www.TuckertonSeaport.org