The Sparks That Light the Future

Rich Guadagno was a refuge enforcement officer with the Department of the Interior and a victim of September 11, 2001.Rich Guadagno was a son, a brother and a refuge enforcement officer with the Department of the Interior. He was also a passenger on United Flight 93 and, his loved ones believe, was likely among those who battled the hijackers and forced the plane to crash before it reached its intended target on September 11, 2001.

“I was twelve years old, in sixth grade,” recalls Justin Holzer, of Rockland County, New York. “We were on a field trip at an outdoorsy place where they taught teamwork skills. When they stopped our activity to explain what had happened, I first thought it was another lesson scenario.”

Today, Justin is an SCA intern at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, PA, and one of two Richard J. Guadagno SCA Conservation Fellowships funded by the Guadagno family. The other Fellow is Aliya McCarthy, a wildlife and botany specialist at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge in California, where Richard was manager until his life abruptly ended.

“He’s still a presence here,” states Aliya, an area native. “I was young when Richard passed away but I understand his contributions to the area. Humboldt is special, with rivers, the ocean and mountains all within hours of each other. I wanted to give back to community I’ve lived in my whole life and it’s an honor to follow in his footsteps.”

“This is exactly what my dad and I had hoped for,” says Lori Guadagno, Richard’s sister. “It took a long time for us to figure what direction we wanted to go in, but the mission of SCA is so aligned with our hopes and dreams for carrying Rich’s legacy into the future. He was so passionate about getting young people in the outdoors. That’s where the spark needs to be fired.”

Jerry Guadagno, the family patriarch, was appointed to the federal memorial advisory commission by then-National Park Service Director Fran Mainella. It was unorthodox to go outside the agency, says retired National Park Service Regional Director and fellow commission member John Reynolds, but “Fran trusted the father of the only Interior Department employee involved to represent her views. And, in the end, I think Jerry and the commission got it absolutely right.” 

Justin Holzer Justin is an SCA intern at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, PA

The Flight 93 Memorial includes a walkway that follows the plane’s flight path, an overlook, and exhibits that share tales of terror and heroism. Richard’s name is inscribed on one of 40 marble panels, one for each passenger and crew member. Justin, the Guadagno Fellow, fills a unique role at the Memorial. Unlike the many SCA volunteers who restore damaged landscapes, Justin helps to mend people.

“This is a place for dialogue,” he says. “We call it ‘twenty-first century interpretation.’ Visitors often want to tell me where they were on nine-eleven. Others are still trying to understand ‘why.’ And people cry here every day, understandably.

“This site used to be a strip coal mine. The land was terribly scarred but now its undergoing a metamorphosis. We want to treat peoples’ emotional scars by prompting discussions and sharing perspectives that contribute to our national narrative.”

Aliya also facilitates conversations at Humboldt Bay, though in a vastly different context. Local efforts to protect the once-endangered Aleutian Cackling goose have been so successful, the geese population has swollen and not everyone is happy about it. “As I conduct goose surveys, I meet many ranchers who aren’t pleased with the geese. They eat their grass and compete with their cows,” she notes. “But I talk with them and try to get everyone on the same page and earn their cooperation.”

In December, Aliya graduated from Humboldt State University with a degree in wildlife management. “This is a big step for my career,” she says. “A lot of my friends moved away after school, but I had a goal of remaining in California and working in a place I love. I’m enjoying the outreach and education, helping kids engage with nature. I’ve never felt more a part of the community, and I’m continuing Richard’s legacy.” 

Back at the Flight 93 Memorial, the flags fly at half-staff. Visitor after visitor asks Justin if that is to honor the Flight 93 passengers, and time after time he gently corrects them. The Green Way spoke with Justin just days after the deadly bombings in Brussels. Nearly 15 years after the events of September 11th, terrorism is an ongoing reality.

“Since nine-eleven, our world has shifted,” he said. “We’ve had foreign attacks, unrest over immigration, mass shootings at places like Sandy Hook and the Colorado movie theater. They constantly loom in my head but I was raised not to live my life according to fear.”

Justin’s resolve is powerful and genuine. And it’s another of the sparks that Lori Guadagno says her family wants to generate. One that will kindle the glow of hope.

“Justin and Aliya make me feel like Rich’s presence is still very much in play in the universe,” Lori says. “These students are taking his vision and his inspiration and carrying it forward.

“You have to put good out in the world. It may be one Fellow here, one Fellow there, it may initially seem so small but as every student does something positive, they will inspire goodness in others. That’s the only way you can balance out the horror and the sadness.”