In Chautauqua, young summer employees find a place to hone skills and make some money as they shape their career paths
Story by John Ford
They may be scooping ice cream, making your change or serving up coffee at the Refectory. Perhaps they take your bag with a smile as you arrive at the hotel. They may take a note for the newspaper, prepare part of your Athenaeum meal or sit astride one of the Institution’s big mowing machines.
They are some of the hundreds of young people who work on the grounds each summer, helping in often invisible ways to make your stay more memorably pleasant. Here are some of their stories.
Back this summer for another season as a cook in the large, versatile Athenaeum Hotel kitchen, this 21-year-old Jamestown, N.Y., native is doing what he loves. But while his passion may be cooking, he also is a physics major at Colgate University who spent his 2011 spring semester studying quantum physics at Australia’s University of Wollongong.
About a year ago, Lasker recalled, “I left the Athenaeum kitchen, helped out at my last President’s Cottage social event on Saturday and resumed classes at Colgate two days later.”
That seems to be the course of his curiously bifurcated life. He studies physics by day but couldn’t stay out of the kitchen, taking a line cook job at the Colgate Inn a couple of evenings a week. While in Australia, Lasker took an unpaid job at Sydney’s noted Quay Restaurant for a week “to keep my hand in,” he said.
Now, life could have delivered a solution in the form of molecular gastronomy. Athenaeum chef Ross Warhol describes this new phenomenon as the study “of the physical and chemical processes that occur while cooking.” Warhol is an experienced proponent.
“(Molecular gastronomy is) cooking at the core level.,” Lasker said. “Heat, for example, either coagulates or uncoagulates protein. It’s fascinating to observe what heat does to eggs.”
Maybe molecular gastronomy also can point the way to Lasker’s future.
This well-organized 19-year-old from Lakewood, N.Y., was an Athenaeum Hotel dining room hostess last summer, but this year, she is office manager at The Chautauquan Daily.
She soon leaves for Cambridge, Mass., for her sophomore year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she may very well be preparing for a career as an actual rocket scientist.
“I’ve always been fascinated by airplanes and flight in general,” Stevens said. “While I was still at Southwestern High School, I decided to aim for colleges which gave me a chance to pursue that career. MIT was my ‘reach’ school.”
While her other acceptances all offered generous scholarships, Stevens aimed high, aided by scholarship prize money she won with a high finish in the local Junior Miss pageant.
“If you don’t know what’s going on, it seems like another beauty contest,” Stevens said. “But 40 percent of our scores were from our academic records and the personal interview.
“The rest of the score was made up of a talent performance — I played violin for 10 years; athletic record — I was captain of the swim and dive team; and ‘poise’ exhibited in floor-length gowns.”
Now, she’s on MIT’s swim team, looks out her dorm room window at the Charles River and may be headed for the stars.
But she’s probably not headed for metaphysics.
James and John Hughes
When asked a question, these 18-year-old fraternal twins from Lakewood unfailingly and politely sort out the response, never trampling on each other’s words and always somehow allowing a cogent reply from each. John, one minute older, is a sophomore chemical engineering major at Rochester Institute of Technology. James is concentrating on economics and finance with a minor in entrepreneurship at the same school. They room together at school in a large suite.
This summer, they both work at the Refectory, with James, the future financier, manning the ice cream counter cash register and John scooping out ice cream.
“This is our first summer as employees at Chautauqua,” John said, “but our family often spent Christmas on the grounds, so it’s familiar territory for us.”
Comfortable in their symbiosis, the twins regard the future with confident optimism, glad to have left high school with what James described as its “football mentality.”
John, tutoring high school classmates in AP chemistry, says he “felt excluded in high school because of my nerdy image.”
James added, “College life is a relief. People treat each other with respect.”
“I guess I am pretty scientifically inclined,” she said with a laugh. “A question makes no sense to me if there is no correct answer. Why even ask it?”
This 18-year-old Refectory gazebo counterman has worked at Chautauqua for several years, graduating from ice cream scooper to the gazebo.
“There’s a smaller pool of employees out at the gazebo for splitting tips,” he said.
Salutatorian in his Frewsburg Central High School class, Marsh is a biology major on a pre-med track at Binghamton University.
But music is a strong, persistent avocation.
“I play the piano, the saxophone, and I sing,” Marsh said. “I guess my highlight was the 2010 Chautauqua Idol competition, where I made it into the final five. I survived three cuts.”
Marsh sang “Drops of Jupiter” by Train for the anything goes category; “Let It Be” by The Beatles; “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson; “Bailamos (Let’s Dance)” by Enrique Iglesias for the Latin song category; “Feeling Good” by Michael Bublé for the big band category; and “Dream On” by Aerosmith for the classic rock category.
Marsh attends as many Chautauqua concerts as he can. His favorite this summer, he said, was “Straight No Chaser, by far.”
In his fourth season with the Institution’s gardens department and third as mowing crew chief, 28-year-old Villamil seems satisfied and content with his course in life, which has been shaped by love.
Life has taken some unexpected turns for Villamil. He was a star forward — “delantero” — on the national under-20 soccer team in his native Costa Rica. Sometimes scoring several goals in a match for his team, he moved up the ranks to professional status and began “dreaming of glory,” he said.
A poignant moment stands out.
“I was preparing for a big game, and my mother faced major surgery,” he said. “I wanted to be with her, but she and my brothers convinced me to play. A big part of that was a note she wrote to me, which I cherish to this day.”
Villamil played, and after an unfocused start led to stern exhortations from his coach, he was the star of the match.
“My mom listened to the game on the radio,” he recalled, his eyes misting at the memory.
Two things changed Villamil’s course. First, nagging knee injuries threatened to derail his career progress. And he met Mayville native and current Institution employee Denise Nohlquist when she visited Costa Rica to pursue Spanish language study.
“We fell in love, and here we are,” he beamed. “We decided to return to the States after marriage because of the better opportunities for us here.”
Now in his fourth year as an Athenaeum bellman, 25-year-old Dan Eggert of Allegheny, N.Y., “was just discussing quantum mechanics with Eric Lasker the other day in the hotel lobby,” he said.
This 2008 University of Maine graduate is not heading for a research science career, however. He wants to be a dentist.
And he really wants to be a dentist: He has been trying to gain admission to dental school since graduation and finally was accepted at New York University’s College of Dentistry for this fall on the third try.
“Their acceptance rate is 6 percent,” he said, somewhat wistfully, “but I made it, and it’s what I want to do, and that’s what counts.”
Serene despite the setbacks, Eggert looks forward to NYU and the “largest patient pool for its clinic in the country — between 80,000 and 100,000 patients,” he said.
He has been a popular figure in the Athenaeum lobby for several seasons.
Nohlquist is finishing her master’s degree in psychology, and Villamil is anticipating his degree from Jamestown Business College later next year. He wants to run his own business one day. The couple has a 2-year-old daughter, Celeste.