Murray leads and mentors elite ‘SpeFunc’ squad
John Ford | Staff Writer
The Athenaeum Hotel general manager kept calling, but Michele “Mickey” Murray wouldn’t return his calls.
This went on for several weeks in 1993, the GM calling, Murray suspecting he wanted to offer her a job at the Institution. For her, having a summer vacation that year was more important.
Finally, she relented and called him back.
Mickey can laugh about it now, after 17 years of recruiting, training, developing, mentoring, leading and loving the Delta Force in Chautauqua Institution hospitality — the Athenaeum Hotel’s Special Functions staff.
“We have a special bond,” Murray reflected the other day. “All these years, so many different young people, but we stay in touch. There must have been nearly a hundred during my time here at the Institution, but I can tell you where most anyone is now, or find out pretty quickly if I don’t know.”
A seventh generation native of the hamlet of Kiantone, N.Y., south of Jamestown, Murray still enjoys her morning and evening commutes to the Institution.
“I can clear out the mental debris of another busy day on the way home,” she said, “and get ready for the next set of waves on the way in next morning.”
Those waves of work get relentless during the season at Chautauqua. Looking over her group’s commitments for next week, Murray realized that “we have 44 events on the calendar now. That might increase a bit, but I doubt it will drop.”
No day has fewer than five separate, individual events. Special Functions does the setup, serves the food and beverages and cleans up afterward. The Special Functions employees also handle associated logistics, like sound systems, as necessary.
“But really,” Murray said, “we do whatever the client wants.”
To cope, Murray relies on her staff of seven college students. Four are returning veterans, including an assistant manager and a team captain. The group begins coming together in May, rehearsing for the season’s rigors by working weddings, pre-season parties and other events.
Morale is high. No one could really recall the last time any team member called in sick. Days off cannot be presumed.
“We can rack up a lot of overtime,” team captain Anders Kane said.
“Our work is varied; we do a lot outside the hotel, and we know what we do helps the Institution,” he continued. “The seven of us really form a bond with each other and with Mickey.”
Murray herself remains stalwart in the face of so much work, a self-professed perfectionist and workaholic who’ll wade in and pull her share.
“I want us to do things right, because others expect it of us and we expect it of ourselves,” she said.
A typical work week for the Special Functions team includes numerous visitor events.
“We call ourselves ‘SpeFunc,’” said Karli Panebianco, assistant manager and five-year Institution veteran.
Murray said there are “lots of day trippers who love to visit Chautauqua Institution on tours.”
Buses deposit them at the hotel almost every day.
Then there are specific gatherings like a College of Wooster conclave, a Yale University alumni group and an offsite meeting sponsored by Highlights, a children’s magazine. Road Scholar, an Elderhostel group, is often on the schedule.
“Many of these are recurring events, and we do get a lot of repeat customers,” Murray said.
“Mickey and her staff are an absolutely indispensable part of our hotel operations,” said Athenaeum General Manager Bruce Stanton. “I have an idea of what life around here might be like without her. We like it when she is here.”
Murray recently completed a successful battle with cancer.
“When I got sick,” she said, “my daughter Sarah came back to Chautauqua County and helped me through my toughest times. She also filled in for me at the Athenaeum for parts of two busy summers. From helping me, Sarah developed an interest in nursing, and she just got her nursing degree the other day.
“And get this: When she was filling for me at the hotel, she reconnected with chef Dave Heald — they’d worked together at the old Park Grill years ago — and now they’re engaged to be married at Chautauqua in September.”
Murray is especially proud of her graduates.
“So many have gone on to great things,” she said. “There are doctors, lawyers, government experts. … Of all my alumni, I only had to dismiss two of them over all this time. Both were for disciplinary reasons outside the office.”
The current SpeFunc crew members clearly like and support each other. They also know that a lot of the work directly supports the efforts of the Institution’s Development Office.
“We treat all our jobs as really important,” Panebianco said, “but Mickey lets us know who we’re serving and why they are important to the Institution.”
Panebianco worked at the President’s Cottage and in the Athenaeum dining room prior to joining the Special Functions crew. A 2008 psychology major from SUNY Fredonia, she has since graduation worked as a pre-school teacher and nanny outside the Chautauqua summer season.
“The three guys on Mickey’s crew call themselves the ‘A-Team,’” Panebianco said with a laugh. “So the women are known as ‘Mickey’s girls.’”
Kane, from Dewittville, N.Y., is entering his senior year at West Virginia University.
“I have a lot of experience in the food service industry,” he said. “In this area, I’ve worked in various capacities at the old Olives Restaurant and the Watermark in Mayville, at Guppy’s across the lake and at the Surf Club in Bemus Point.
“To make some extra money at school and to clear my head, I work as a manager at a catering service. I need to clear my head because I’m a computer science major specializing in computer forensics. I’m in a fast-track program leading to a master’s degree.”
Kane said he hopes to work for the government after graduation.
Kane’s brother Thorin is another part of the “A-Team,” continuing a Chautauqua family tradition begun by their elder brother Eric. Thorin Kane started out as a journalism major at SUNY Oswego but took Astronomy 101 in his second semester, “and I have never looked back,” he said.
“Of 10,000 students at Oswego, there are eight astronomy majors,” he said. “I’m going to specialize in astrophysics.”
Does he look at the clear moonless night sky somewhat differently?
“Yeah,” he chuckled. ”I guess I probably do. We are so dwarfed by the unquantifiable immensity of space. I look at the night sky and see the very definition of infinity. And I’m the type of guy who made it through Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time the first time I tried to navigate the sheer density of it.”
The rest of “Mickey’s girls” are Ashley Johnson, Melanie Chmura and Mary Richardson.
Johnson, in her first year at the Institution, is headed to Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., in the fall to study hospitality management.
Chmura, entering her senior year at Slippery Rock University, is in her second Chautauqua season, as is Richardson, also heading to Mercyhurst to study fashion merchandising.
The last of the crew is Hiram College junior Aaron Andzelik, a biomedical humanities major who intends to go to optometry school after graduation. Andzelik is in his second year at the Institution, lives just down Route 394 on the way to Jamestown and has known the Kane clan since high school.
His first job at Chautauqua, Andzelik said, was as a paperboy for The Chautauquan Daily.
“The first year I sold the paper, it cost 40 cents,” he said. “We worked out a cute little jingle to attract business down on Bestor Plaza. Then, the next year, the price rose to 50 cents. It was a big deal for us: We had to change the jingle, and we also had to listen to the laments of long-time Chautauquans who reminded us of when the Daily cost only a dime.”