Deborah K. Piscitelli Receives Murfin Award at the PLA Convention and Trade Show

By Public Lands Alliance Staff posted 03-06-2017 08:37


Left to right: Doug Perks (Board member, Harpers Ferry Park Association), Julia Washburn (NPS Associate Director, Interpretation, Education and Volunteers), Deborah Piscitelli, Dennis Frye (Chief Historian, Chief of Interpretation, Education & Partnerships, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park), and David Gilbert (Board member, Harpers Ferry Park Association).

Deborah (Debbie) K. Piscitelli, of the Harpers Ferry Historical Association (HFHA; now Harpers Ferry Park Association),  received the 2017 James V. Murfin Award, which honors an individual who has made a significant and lasting contribution to the partnership between the National Park Service (NPS) and cooperating associations over time. Ms. Piscitelli served as executive director of HFHA from 1980 through 2016. Julia Washburn, NPS Associate Director of Interpretation Education and Volunteers, presented the award to Ms. Piscitelli at the Public Lands Alliance Convention, February 13th in Arlington, Virginia.

The Murfin Award — inaugurated in 1988 — is named for the talented and dedicated service-wide cooperating association coordinator who worked tirelessly to encourage excellence and innovation in the cooperating association program. Mr. Murfin’s groundbreaking ideas include improved bookstore design, effective training programs, and stellar literature offerings — especially in the area of children’s literature. His unparalleled expertise and generosity of spirit made him a revered mentor for many, including Ms. Piscitelli. Ms. Piscitelli’s 36 years of leadership as Executive Director of HFHA in Harpers Ferry, WV, exemplifies the lasting positive impact that the Murfin Award seeks to spotlight.

From Distress to Success

Ms. Piscitelli, equipped with nearly ten years of experience as a NPS front-line interpreter and supervisor at Harpers Ferry, arrived at the association in 1980, and reversed the negative bottom line; designed a new store from scratch; and moved HFHA into a restored historic structure. Under her inspired leadership, the association prospered and excelled its mission of “stewardship through education.”

Prevailing Against Disasters

Ms. Piscitelli’s time at HFHA was not without challenges, both natural and economic. Pinched between the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harpers Ferry is under constant threat of flooding. During Ms. Piscitelli’s tenure as executive director, floods overcame the association and the park not just once (1985), or twice (1996), but thrice (1996 again). In each instance, water in the sales area topped five feet. During the floods, Ms. Piscitelli coordinated dozens of employees and volunteers to move books, equipment, and infrastructure, and no inventory loss or injuries ever occurred.  Additionally, a temporary sales area was quickly established to ensure continued operations.

In addition to floods, HFHA has weathered severe economic recessions over the years. Yet, during each downturn, Ms. Piscitelli managed the association with pragmatic rigor, making difficult, but necessary, decisions that ultimately strengthened the organization.

A Legacy of Business Savvy, Service to the Public, and True Partnership

Ms. Piscitelli displayed an extraordinary ability to identify publications that connected visitors to the park. Ms. Piscitelli’s creativity and her passion for Harpers Ferry’s diverse history resulted in twelve unique publications — including three national award winners. Titles such as The Harpers Ferry Heritage Trail (1984) imbue the park with meaning for visitors of all backgrounds. Ms. Piscitelli also oversaw the publication of teacher study guides, including: “School House Ridge Elementary Education Study Guide” (1998) — a Civil War guide for which the association received an award of excellence; and the “Niagara Movement Education Study Guide” (2006) that focused on civil rights and the establishment of the NAACP.

Over the course of Ms. Piscitelli’s tenure, more than $1.8 million in aid to interpretation was donated to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Without the association’s sponsorship, the 50th anniversary, centennial, and sesquicentennial special events would have been impossible.  The association also provides support for annual park events, such as the Don Redman Jazz Heritage Awards & Concert (2001-present); the Naturalization Ceremony for new citizens (2013-present); and The Confluence Concert (2016).

Ms. Piscitelli became an important partner of the Civil War Trust and the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, providing books and educational merchandise at their annual meetings. This helps increase the association’s membership and enhances its social media and web presence to a larger audience.

James  V. Murfin

Jim Murfin was a close friend of Ms. Picsitelli.  She often consulted with Jim, tapping his sage advice on running an association, and putting his writing and editing skills to good use.  Near the end of his life, she asked him to write a popular interpretive book as a HFHA publication, but sadly, before he finished it, Jim passed away. Nevertheless, Ms. Picsitelli ensured the completion of the award-winning book, From the Riot and Tumult, and oversaw its publication, for which HFHA received 1st place in the National Association of Interpreters Publications Award.

An exceptionally strong field of nominees for the 2017 James V. Murfin Award included outstanding Association and Service leaders:  Roberta (Bobbi) Hill, Bookstore Manager at Cabrillo National Monument Foundation; Curt Sauer, Board member of Joshua Tree National Park Association (also former Superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park);  Rich Fedorchak, Chief of Interpretation and Education at Rocky Mountain National Park; Cathy Bonser, Executive Director, Redwood Parks Conservancy.