Alumni Profile: Dennis Heaphy ’89 Ever wonder what it would be like to spend the night literally inside one of the world’s most famous landmarks? Onondaga alumnus Dennis Heaphy, ’89, knows firsthand. As the resident tinsmith for the Statue of Liberty, Heaphy had little choice but to spend a night inside the statue to perform much needed repair work on the crown windows of this iconic symbol of patriotism and freedom.
That was nearly eight years ago when the statue was open to visitors from dawn to dusk. Due to the crowds, there was little daylight left for the detailed repairs. So Heaphy brought a bedroll with him one evening and after the last boat departed from the island, he got to work.
“To my knowledge, I’m the only person who has ever slept in the crown overnight,” says Heaphy. “You honestly forget for a moment where you are. I remember looking out of a window and seeing the tablet she holds. I was in awe when I realized that I’m in the Statue of Liberty!”
Although for more than 100 years his family background has been in tinsmithing, Heaphy’s first love is the theater. He is a Syracuse native who graduated from Onondaga in 1989 with a degree in Electronic Media Communications. He studied film at New York University and became involved in directing, producing and voiceovers.
After NYU, Heaphy worked in local theater in New York City. While performing at the “Ellis Island Live Theater,” his other talent was discovered.
The managers of Ellis Island also oversee the work at the Statue. After Heaphy joked with them about becoming the resident tinsmith, they took him up on his offer and asked him to inspect some areas of the structure that needed attention. To the amazement of the staff, he fixed the problems and was promptly offered a job in addition to his role as a performer at the theater.
During the off-season, Heaphy performs an adaptation of a program that currently exists at Ellis Island in schools along the East coast. He portrays a Russian immigrant on trial fighting for his citizenship.
Heaphy adapted the program for grades 2-12 where the teachers serve as judges as he pleads his case to a jury of students. “It’s amazing to see how involved the kids become after only the first few minutes of my performance,” says Heaphy. “After the verdict is read, there’s nothing that compares to 300 students jumping up and cheering for this fictional immigrant who has been allowed into the country. I feel privileged to bring the pages of history books to life.”
When asked about his two jobs at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, he says that one would not work without the other. By blending his love of theater and his deep appreciation for the art of tinsmithing, Dennis Heaphy has created a unique career for himself.
He fondly remembers being a student in his midtwenties at Onondaga. “When I came to Onondaga, I was a bit older than most of the other students,” says Heaphy. “I was doing a lot of theater but I wasn’t entirely happy. It was comforting to be in an atmosphere where I wasn’t that out of the ordinary. Going to Onondaga was the perfect way for me to start college.”
Currently, Heaphy travels back and forth betweenSyracuse and New York City performing reenactments and doing restorative work on the Statue. He was recently hired by PBS to work on the documentary, “The Progressive Era.” For more information about Dennis Heaphy and the Ellis Island Reenactment go to www.ellisislandreenactment.com.
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