Brothers Paul and James Bizzaro, both in their 80s, spent their childhoods living in a house right behind the Statue of Liberty. Their family moved to the same small island in New York Harbor as Lady Liberty 75 years ago this summer, not long after their father, also James, became a guard at the statue.
When the Bizzaros moved to what’s now called Liberty Island in 1937, Paul was 8 and James was 6.
“Half of the island was for the visitors. The half that we lived in, we had that whole half to us,” says James.
“But we were allowed to do whatever we wanted, so we used to go up to the torch,” Paul remembers.
“And if you shook enough, the whole arm would shake,” James says.
The boys shook it once when their mother was walking up. “She never went up again,” Paul says.
“We used to go on the ferry to go to school, and I remember Sister Alphonsus Marie — she was tough, like a truck driver,” James says. “She was mean. But she was always talking about the island, so I invited her to come to the statue, and we climbed the head, and she says, ‘Oh!’ She says, ‘This is the closest I’m going to get to heaven.’ But she never treated me any better or any different.”
In 1944, the family moved back to Brooklyn, where they had lived before moving to the island, though their father still commuted to the statue.
“And the way a person knows every corner of his house, he knew every corner of that Statue of Liberty,” says James. Their father retired in 1971 after 36 years there. He had been a guard for about a year, then began working in maintenance, and eventually became the maintenance supervisor.
“When he retired, it took 11 men to replace him. He was the man that kept the statue lit. The lights, they never went out when he worked,” Paul says.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Anita Rao with Eve Claxton.