Eric Handy ’07 was a bundle of nerves.
Owls and raptors swooped through the sky, to the delight of the children on the ground in Central Park, while Handy gave his supervisor some bad news: He had put in his two-weeks’ notice.
He had a job offer from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on New York’s Upper East Side. Not bad for a biology major. But the hospital wanted him to start on the same day he hoped to get an offer that would turn his summer job into a permanent one as an urban park ranger.
“Ever since I was young, my parents wanted me to aim for the stars. I always thought I was going to be a doctor,” Handy says.
But in his second summer working with the park rangers, he knew that aiming for the stars was best done outside.
That same day, his supervisor pulled him aside, asking Handy, “If I could assure you that a full-time offer was coming, would you rescind your resignation?”
“Absolutely,” he replied. “I love this job.”
Handy has now been a park ranger in Manhattan for eight years, teaching city-dwellers the joy of camping, canoeing and hiking, among other things.
“Our mission is to link New Yorkers to the natural world,” he says.
In August, Handy and about 30 little friends set up tents, played games and even took a night hike — in Central Park.
“We turned off all the lights so that they could get an idea of what pure darkness feels like in the city,” he says.
It was one of three camping trips he led this summer. “It’s a lot of fun, and it’s also exhausting because it’s a 16-hour shift,” he says. “But it’s so rewarding because we’re showing kids parts of the park that they’ve never seen.”
“Anytime we can go outdoors, he volunteers,” says fellow park ranger Rob Mastrianni, who has been working with Handy for eight years and calls him the “go-to” guy when it comes to boats.
This summer, the two led a canoe trip on the East River from Randall’s Island to North Brother Island, an uninhabited island and bird sanctuary.
“It was definitely an adventure,” Mastrianni says of the trip, which included 15 advanced canoeists who were selected through a lottery. “He was giving everyone the history of the island, and people were loving it.”
Handy was working in a deli the summer between his junior and senior years at Binghamton when he was offered an internship with the park rangers in Manhattan’s Central Park.
“It sounded really exciting to me, like something I did with the Boy Scouts,” he says.
He was assigned to Fort Totten Park in Bayside, Queens, where he helped patrol the park and teach community programs. During his three-month internship, he responded to calls ranging from kittens on the lam to a red-tailed hawk with a broken wing. “It was so majestic looking, even though it was injured,” he recalls. “It definitely looked like it commanded respect.”
As the summer came to a close, Handy brushed off a co-worker’s suggestion that he consider a career with the rangers.
He had already dedicated three years of his life to the pre-med track at Binghamton, suffering through microbiology and surviving a “nightmarish” organic chemistry. But while he’d spent previous years shadowing internal medicine doctors and cardiologists, he says that he found the work less than satisfying and too routine.
“It started to click in the back of my mind: What if I did this? What if this was my future?” he wondered. “The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of becoming a park ranger.”
Handy makes an effort to be outdoors as much as possible, noting that he doesn’t even mind if the only thing he does some days is provide tourists with directions to the “Imagine” tribute to John Lennon or another popular park site.
He’s made just two arrests — the first one just 24 hours after he was deputized as a peace officer.
A man was about to throw a large rock at two people. Handy sprinted over, stopped the attack and cuffed the man shortly before 2 a.m.
“First thing they told me was, ‘Don’t go looking around for someone to arrest,’” he says, “and look what happened.”
The second arrest landed him in the ER. He confronted a man walking a dog without a leash. The man punched him in the face and the two tussled before Handy fell and hit his head. Doctors cleared him and sent him home with a few scrapes and a story to tell.
“At least I got what I wanted — something different every day,” Handy says.
Camping in Central Park: A photo gallery of Eric Handy’s August camping trip with kids.