ELYSBURG - Joe Muscato told his bosses at Knoebels Amusement Resort a year ago that this Labor Day would be his final day in a 33-year career as the park's director of marketing and public relations.

He wanted the Knoebels family to have plenty of time to find the right people to take his place, knowing that employment at the park is more than just a job.

"I've seen people who visit the park and I see the connections that are made, and it's deeper than just a place to go," Muscato said.

Could Knoebels find new PR people who understood that connection?

The first feelers through Monster.com weren't promising. But this is Knoebels, where fantasies - and employment wishes - come true.

As Muscato heads toward his final day Monday, he'll pass the torch to two women who are not only local, but worked for Knoebels in their youth and understand the park from the guests' perspective.

Mary Frances Helwig, 31, of Elysburg, takes over the marketing reigns and Stacy Ososkie, 27, of Mount Carmel, is the new public relations specialist.

"They grew up in the park, were around the park," Muscato said. "That makes it a lot easier to bring people in and hand it off, because I know they have a connection to the park already. And they come in with a great skill set."

Teaching at Susquehanna

Muscato, 63, originally from Livonia, N.Y., lives in Riverside with his wife, Leanna, sister of Buddy and Dick Knoebel.

Muscato noted the tremendous growth of the park during his time. From 30 rides when he started in 1981 to 65 today, it continues to grow.

"It makes me a little uncomfortable to talk about myself because that hasn't been my job all this time," he said. "My job has been to highlight all the other special things here. There's been plenty to talk about."

Muscato was teaching communications for a decade at Susquehanna University when a former student referred Buddy Knoebel to him in Knoebels' search for help with advertising at the park. He continued to teach at Susquehanna until 1987 when his job became full time at the park.

"(He's) been a big part not just of the Knoebels family, but the business as well," Buddy Knoebel said.

Muscato said his job outgrew one person at least 10 years ago, and believes public relations suffered as he focused on the broader marketing aspects. Ososkie will bring a new proactive focus to promoting the park, while Helwig's marketing efforts will include a fresh injection of digital media.

'Perfect timing'

Familiarity with Knoebels was almost unavoidable for Helwig - she grew up a quarter-mile away. Now she's purchased that same home from her parents, and she and husband Josh will be raising their two children, Kailee, 4, and Josh, 2, within earshot of the pleasant shouts of children enjoying Knoebels - the ones Helwig heard while working at the park's Crystal Pool in her youth. Helwig is a 2001 Southern Columbia graduate.

She started her new job at the park in May after 8 ½ years in marketing for Weis Markets. She earned her bachelor's degree in marketing from Lehigh University and her master's in business computers and instructional technology education at Bloomsburg University.

"What better place to work than a place that is very family oriented," she said. "My kids love coming down here. I can experience it though their eyes, I can experience it through my eyes, I can experience it through the guests' eyes," she said.

She recalls stories from her grandparents about their times at Knoebels, and recently found her father's annual pool pass from the late 1960s.

Ososkie started at the park on her 14th birthday, and worked in the payroll office and weekends in food service for seven seasons.

A full-time job as an adult at Knoebels was in the cards all along - at least as far as her mother was concerned. Ososkie recalls a conversation as her parents drove her to her dorm for her freshman year at Immaculata College, where she studied communications with an emphasis on PR.

"My mom says to me, 'Well, Stacy, you'll finish up four years here and maybe by that time Joe will be retiring at Knoebels,'" she said while sharing a laugh with Muscato. "And I said, 'Oh, right, mom; he'll never retire."

It wasn't exactly to plan - Ososkie spent her first five years out of college as a communication specialist at Chester County Intermediate Unit in Doylestown - but close enough.

In fact, "You know what, it was perfect timing," she said, "because I was able to go out and get some real-world experience first."

To which Muscato quipped, "Always good to go out and get that real world before you come back to fantasy land."

Local opportunities

More seriously, he adds, Helwig and Ososkie demonstrate that the region does have something to offer its young people.

"There are opportunities. Maybe not hundreds of opportunities, but, look, we have two really talented women, one coming back and one staying in the region, taking on this, which is a major enterprise," he said. "They're both well-equipped for it.

"I think the quality of life does draw a lot of people here," he continued. "It's a point worth making that it is a good place to be."

Ososkie, who has moved in with her sister in Mount Carmel, and whose parents still live in Kulpmont, has just two courses remaining to wrap up a master's in communication studies from West Chester University. She is a 2005 graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes.

"In all honesty, the one thing I was concerned with was will they find the right people, because I've invested 33 years and gave it my best shot," Muscato said. "And I didn't want to just hand it off to some knucklehead. You just don't know."

But things turned out "great," he said.

"Through a variety of things that occurred, we landed these two, so I'm very comfortable walking out."

The future

Buddy Knoebel shares Muscato's confidence in the new hires.

"We sought out talented people to fill that vacuum and we believe we have found two very capable young women who will accomplish that. We are excited about what they have already demonstrated," Knoebel said. "It is a new generation with a new perspective on things. We are convinced we made the right choices."

As for Muscato, Knoebel said they'll miss his "astute insight, experience and everything he brings to the table."

"I seldom complete a project without input from him," he said. "We wish him the best in his retirement and hope that he might just continue to influence some of our future."