Karen Cucurullo '80 (Recreation & Park Administration)

Popular tourist attraction in Cucurullo's hands

Karen Cucurullo

Karen Cucurullo endured a week last summer that her classes at Sac State probably never prepared her for. It involved an earthquake, a hurricane, the opening of new national monument and the unexpected closing of an old one.

Cucurullo is the deputy superintendent for operations for the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington D.C.—the expanse of land and landmarks located between the U.S. Capitol Building and the Washington Monument. It is home to dozens of monuments, historic buildings and museums including many of the museums of the Smithsonian Institution.

“My job is to provide the best park experience for the more than 25 million people who visit each year,” she says.

She had her hands full in August, when the capital area was hit by an earthquake then a few days later, a hurricane.

The quake caused cracks in the Washington Monument, forcing the closure of the 127-year-old obelisk.

“When you have something that’s 555 feet in the air, during an earthquake the top shakes a little bit,” says Cucurullo.

Hurricane Irene threatened the opening of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

“We were wringing our hands. We wanted the dedication ceremony to happen as scheduled, but sometimes in this job, no matter how much you wish for something to happen, weather changes things,” she says.

The Washington Monument was closed for several weeks while repairs were being made. The MLK monument opened on schedule, but the dedication ceremony was pushed back two weeks.

“They were the right calls,” Cucurullo says.

While that week was a logistical nightmare for Cucurullo, it was all part of the job for the Sac State alumna who says she dreamed of being a park ranger since she was in the sixth grade. On a nearly daily basis she deals with protests, terrorist threats and occupiers, as well as weddings, celebrations, and television and movie crews on the Mall.

Cucurullo began preparing for her park service career as a student at Humboldt State University in 1975, but transferred to Sac State because the University’s recreation and park administration’s curriculum better suited her aspirations.

“I wanted more of the administration and operations of a park system,” she says. “Sac State’s program was exactly what I wanted.”

Like many of her fellow students, Cucurullo had internships and jobs in California’s state parks, but she had hopes of becoming a national park ranger, a job she describes as, “the holy grail of careers in the park service.” Her quest began in a place few people would want to live or work.

“I applied for Death Valley in the summertime and got picked up as a park ranger,” she says laughing. “It turned out to be a wonderful experience.”

She went on to stays at the Manassas National Battlefield Park, Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the President’s Park (the land surrounding the White House). After twice serving as acting deputy superintendent for operations for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, she was named permanently to the position in 2010.

“The National Mall and Memorial Parks is a dynamic and exciting place to be,” Cucurullo says. “It’s one of the gateways to our country and represents democracy and the sacrifices Americans have made. If someone had told me long ago that I’d eventually become the deputy superintendent for operations where the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are, I would have said, ‘Really? How did that happen?’”

This article was originally published in the Spring 2012 edition of Sac State Magazine.