Docents bring own spin on Edison’s life through guided tours

Scott Jacobs

EDISON — Michele Lawrence said she has lived in Edison for more than 34 years, but did not realize the enormity of what a true historic gem the Thomas Alva Edison Center at Menlo Park was until she became a docent for the center.

Last year, Lawrence became one of the many volunteers who guide the thousands of people who visit the center from all around the world.

“Now I’m like a walking billboard, spreading the news about the tower and museum,” she said.

Lawrence said prior to volunteering, she knew of the Edison Memorial Tower as “oh, the lightbulb.”

“My husband and I would pass [Christie Street] driving along Route 27 and we’d look to see the light of the museum,” she said, adding she took her children to the museum when they were young.

Every docent, who include retired microbiologists, engineers and teachers, has a story to tell as they guide people around the historic grounds.

“My first love is chemistry and that is how I throw a different spin on how I relate to [Edison’s] life,” Lawrence said.

Kathleen Carlucci, museum director, said the museum’s docents are amazing.

“They are all very hands-on, very engaging and have people laughing on the tours,” she said.

Carlucci said the museum’s docents come from diverse backgrounds. They include Bruce Friedman, a retired engineer and teacher; Russ Gehrun, a retired Metuchen police officer; Chuck Perillo, who shares his love of electronics; Tom Genova, a retired microbiologist; Joanne Mesonas, a reading specialist; Darlene Bernai, a retired special education teacher; Lawrence, a chemist in her early career; and Steve Li, a retired chemist.

The docents guide guests through the two-room museum, which include both original artifacts and interpretive exhibits relating to Edison’s major inventions at Menlo Park. Guests can also walk on a guided nature trail through the 36-acre state park.

Carlucci said the docents are very involved in the exhibits and make them their own as they guide guests through the museum and park.

“We really are like a family here,” she said, adding Rachael Winston assists her in her everyday duties.

The mission of the Thomas Edison Center is to honor the memory of the great inventor and educate the public about Edison, his significant accomplishments at the site and his impact on modern research and development.

The center is within Edison State Park on Christie Street, and consists of the Art Deco Edison Memorial Tower and a small museum and education center.

The center and the park are jointly administered by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Parks and Forestry, the Township of Edison and the non-profit Edison Memorial Tower Corporation.

Carlucci said along with the docents, students from John P. Stevens High School in Edison, Union Catholic Regional High School in Scotch Plains and Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren Township volunteer at the museum.

“We also have former students come back and volunteer their time,” she said.

Every year, the second-grade classes in the Edison public school system take a field trip to the tower to learn through the “Shining a Light on Edison” program.

“The students are introduced to the man their hometown is named after,” Carlucci said.

Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory is where Edison invented the phonograph, which earned him the title of the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” He also invented the lightbulb; Christie Street became the world’s first street to be lit by incandescent light bulbs with the help of a power system designed by Edison in 1879.

The Thomas Alva Edison Center at Menlo Park is located at 37 Christie St., Edison. For more information, visit www.menloparkmuseum.org.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@newspapermediagroup.com.