Coming full circle, zoo employee rediscovers his niche

No one had to tell Jerry DiMarcellis that it’s all happening at the zoo.

It’s where he earned a $1.15 an hour in his first job as a high school kid hawking snow-cones over the summer of ’63 – the highlight being the Sunday afternoon when 17,000 sun-spanked St. Louis Zoo visitors sought relief in his concoctions.

DiMarcellis must have done something right.

Because the following summer he was rewarded with a very cool job – delivering 500-pound blocks of ice (the ice machine was still a few years away from becoming a fixture among commercial food enterprises) to the park concessions.

Then came college, a stint in the military, marriage, kids and mortgages DiMarcellis supported first as a truck driver and later working in the sales field.

He still went to the zoo. But for nearly 30 years strictly as a visitor.

That status shifted in 1993 when DiMarcellis returned to the park in the capacity of volunteer.

As semi-retirement approached, DiMarcellis had a revelation:

A society that rewards those that constantly move forward tends to ignore the emotional and psychological benefits of simply taking a step back.

“My son always says, ‘I’m not going to be as old as Dad before I find my niche,’” DiMarcellis says.

DiMarcellis, 65, wasn’t that old before he again landed where he was meant to be.

The volunteer gig grew into a part-time paid position as a docent (a tour guide).

And, in a repeat of the history that landed the ice delivery job decades before, DiMarcellis again did something right.

Officials soon made note of DiMarcellis’s knack for holding the interest of park patrons as he delivered his soliloquies on the zoo inhabitants.

In 2004, he became the zoo’s sole full-time and only certified “interpreter” (by successfully fulfilling the requirements established by the National Association of Interpretation). Interpreters are guides hired to provide institutional insight into museum, zoo and gallery exhibits.

St. Louis Zoo surveys show that a third of the three million people visiting the park each year avail themselves of a guide.

Few are more popular than DiMarcellis, who strolls the grounds wearing a button identifying himself as “Professor Whatchawanano” and other aliases he has adopted through the years.

It’s all about context, according to DiMarcellis.

Pointing to the diet of a caged cheetah is one thing.

Better, DiMarcellis says, to explain that the St. Louis Zoo helps preserve the cheetah population by providing sheep ranchers on the African Savannah with Anatolian Shepherds. Were it not for the dogs, the ranchers would shoot the cheetahs to protect their herds

“Half of it is just keeping them engaged,” DiMarcellis said of the presentations, which rarely last beyond a few minutes. “It’s finding a connection.”

The connection doesn’t occasionally lead in an unexpected direction.

To illustrate the survival of the fittest, DiMarcellis one day explained to an audience of young visitors that the giraffe’s height allows the animal to spot predators from a distance.

Sensing their interest, DiMarcellis asked if they cared to see an informal demonstration on how a lion attacks should a giraffe’s early warning system fails.

Careful, one of the kids cautioned, “my dad is a lawyer.”

The zoo survey found 96 percent of the visitors that interact with an employee will return to the park, usually more than once.

DiMarcellis, the 2011 Employee of the Year, is fully aware of where the interpreters fit into the equation.

“If they have fun but don’t learn anything they’ll still want to come back,” he said. “But if they learn something and don’t have fun they won’t come back. And if they don’t come back, they won’t learn something new.”

Jerry DiMarcellis himself provides a separate lesson about finding a niche in the employment market.

His son’s observation notwithstanding, every day that he pulls on his safari hat and heads into the park, it’s just another reminder it’s never too late to do something you love.


“Today is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Stanford, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.

To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money. Goldman Sachs is one of the world’s largest and most important investment banks and it is too integral to global finance to continue to act this way. The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.” – former Goldman Sachs executive Greg Smith’s very public resignation letter

Source: The New York Times


3.5 million – U.S. job gains since the start of 2010.

8.7 million – U.S. jobs lost during the recession. 

4.7 million – Estimated number of jobs U.S. needed to add over the past two years to keep apace of population growth.

Source: Economic Policy Institute


“Last August I earned my master’s degree from Northwestern University. I have now been unemployed for six months. I realize now that life with a liberal arts degree is self-inflicted. It turns out that few job descriptions list a base understanding of semiotics or rote memorization of the oeuvre of Alfred Lord Tennyson under necessary Skills/Qualifications.” – Tyler Moss in an essay entitled “Trials of a stay-at-home Boyfriend”

Source: Salon

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