Bernadette Castro (1948 - ) received the Pugsley Medal in 2002. She was appointed commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation in January, 1995 and served in that capacity for 12 years until the end of 2006. The agency had an annual operating budget of over $200 million, a staff of over 1,600 full-time and 6,000 seasonal employees, 168 state parks, 53 historic and heritage sites, 27 golf courses, 76 beaches, 27 marinas and 18 nature centers, and attracted over 65 million visitations annually. In 2001, she was also appointed by President George W. Bush as vice chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
Born in Manhattan, Castro started her life in a two-family house in the Bronx. Her mother was raised on a dairy farm in McKeesport, Pennsylvanian, while her father was an immigrant from Sicily who spoke no English and at the age of 15 arrived in the US penniless. He learned English at night and opened a reupholstery shop. Later the business evolved into Castro Convertibles specializing in producing sofas that could be turned into beds. When her parents accidentally stumbled on the fact that their four-year old daughter could open the Castro Convertible sofa, they featured her in television and radio advertisements so she became a living trademark representing the company. It became the most frequently televised commercial in the US. One of the subsequent updates of the original commercial, which she did when she was twelve, was the first color commercial in the country. This was the beginning of her public life!
Castro graduated from the University of Florida with a BA in broadcast journalism, reflecting her fascination with television and radio as a child. She subsequently earned a master's degree in educational administration from the same institution and became the first woman ever to receive the University's Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1985. She went to work in the advertising and promotions department of Castro Convertibles. Later, when her four children were young, she worked in the business on a limited basis, and moved into her role as the company CEO when they were grown. After the business was sold in 1993, she moved into the field of politics.
In 1994, Castro was a candidate for the United States Senate, winning 43% of the vote when running against the incumbent Daniel Patrick Moynihan. When invited to join Governor Pataki's administration in 1995 there was skepticism by some when she was appointed because she had no background in the parks field. She responded, "I always like to remind people that Robert Moses [Pugsley Medal 1936] didn't know how to drive, and yet he built the best parkway system in the world....I believe that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you deal with it."
A critical message that her father conveyed to Castro was that "you can't just work hard, you have to live right." In his opinion, one element of "living right" was to avoid interfering with nature. At her home in Lloyd Harbor, Long Island, there is a tree just inches away from an extension which was built twenty years ago. Her father insisted that the tree be protected. She recalled her father's view that the house should be wrapped around that tree. "That tree had been here a lot longer than we had and it wasn't dead, it wasn't diseased. Why would you take it down? Without meaning to, he taught me to respect nature," she observed. She recalls as a child her father building a factory on an abandoned baseball field to avoid removing trees at an alternate location. In her position as park commissioner, Castro embraced her father's integrity, morality and veneration for the environment.
Castro chose Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation as the division she wanted to lead because "its historic preservation, its parks and its open space acquisition. It's unbelievably wonderful and interesting, and positive. It was like a sleeping giant, and all that it needed was enthusiasm and leadership. And I had a governor that loved it. The guy is a bird watcher, a hiker, a cross-country skier. It's a sleeping giant and here is a governor that is passionate about the outdoors." During her tenure from 1995 to 2006, New York State preserved over one million acres of land through acquisition for state parks or conservation easements. Much of this was funded by a $1.75 billion environmental bond which was authorized in 1996.
Castro brought a business background into state parks and according to a cover story in Newsday; the steps the commissioner has taken have resulted in "the most dramatic changes to hit the state parks systems since Robert Moses created the empire in the 1920s." Castro provided key leadership in many innovative programs including a number of public-private partnerships to preserve and enhance the system. She empowered parks staff to be entrepreneurial. For example, they were authorized to reinvest some of the revenues they generated into their parks. Another illustration of this was that managers could apply for no-interest state loans to fund revenue generating projects and were rewarded by being allowed to retain 90% of the profits to reinvest.
Bringing the acquisition of Sterling Forest to fruition demonstrated her ability to take advantage of opportunities and to build coalitions. The 18,000 acre Sterling Forest property is located only 30 miles from New York City and it protects approximately 25% of the drinking water of the entire state of New Jersey. It offered New York State an opportunity to create the system's greatest new park of the second half of the twentieth century. She quickly recognized that this was a bi-partisan, bi-state issue and mobilized a broad based support base for it. She stated: "If I have to rent an apartment in Washington to lobby this thing through, I will." She ensured the entire force of the Pataki administration was brought to bear on behalf of protection of the Forest. She made many trips to Washington, constantly urging monies be put into the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Forest Legacy program for the Sterling Forest.
In 1996, Speaker Newt Gingrich was visiting the Hudson River Valley and the Monksville Reservoir in New Jersey (the downstream recipient of Sterling Forest water). Castro rode in his van with the job of convincing him of the value of saving Sterling Forest. Testament to her ability to focus her message, the Speaker got out of the van and announced, "We are going to save Sterling Forest" to the crowd waiting there. The rest was history; the $55 million needed for the purchase was forthcoming.
This was followed later in her term by Sterling Forest II, an additional 1,065 acres, purchased for $8 million. Again, because of her steadfastness at every turn, the federal government, the states of New Jersey and New York, and private sources raised the funds to purchase the important near-last portion of Sterling Forest.
In 2002, the US Open Golf Championship was held on the Black course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island which was the first time the open has been held on a public course. In 2003, New York State Parks was selected as winner of the National Gold Medal awarded to the country's best state parks system. Also in 2003, the agency was recognized for its comprehensive efforts to save Governor's Island in New York City which was transferred from the federal government back to the people of New York. It was noted that "Government Island is a jewel with unique structures and a distinguished history that can now become a destination for heritage tourism in New York Harbor."
Castro's strong personality, contagious enthusiasm for the job, persuasiveness, elegance and charm, combined with her substantial business experience and commitment to the environment made her a formidable advocate for park, conservation and recreation causes.
Finn, Robin (2000) Off those sofas and into the great outdoors. New York Times May 25, B2.
Binnewies, Robert (2001) Palisades: 100 acres in 100 years. New York: Fordham University Press.