Six people, all from different places, working for the same lifetime goal
By John Ford
Family ties lead many seasonal and part-time employees to Chautauqua. Reports and anecdotes from friends and professors draw others here for the summer season. Still others live nearby and know the Institution is an often stimulating — sometimes exciting — place to meet interesting people and, maybe, begin to lay the foundation for a future filled with promise.
As seasonal activity on the grounds accelerated past the midpoint of the season, a few of the Institution’s part-time employees shared their stories.
He took off his baseball hat and brushed back his thick, dirty blond hair.
With more than a hint of mischief in his voice, Jeremy Little asked if his visitors wanted to see a magic trick. He produced a good one, involving a deck of Athenaeum Hotel cards and a cellphone.
Little, a first-year server at Heirloom, said he sometimes does a little magic for his customers in the restaurant.
“It’s been a good summer,” he said. “Many of the customers are interesting, and some of them are pretty generous, too. Things go just fine if you can adjust to the customer. I have had other food service jobs. There is dining room service and there is diner service. Here at the hotel, we are definitely providing dining room service.”
Little shares an apartment this summer just off the grounds with a fellow server, Ben Roesser. Originally from Brocton, New York, Little studied performance music and audio production at SUNY Purchase near New York City for one semester.
“That taught me two things,” he said. “One, I didn’t like big city life as much as I thought I did. Second, traditional campus life is not for me.”
He transferred to the music program at Jamestown Community College and is much happier.
Passionate about videography and music, Little has played drums in local bands. He and Roesser are having what he called “Jeremy and Ben’s excellent adventure this summer, scootin’ around the ’Tute ” on their new Razor scooters.
“In five years, I’ll either be killing it as a rock star, working as a magician’s consultant developing new tricks, still serving in a restaurant — or I’ll be a high school history teacher,” he said with a smile.
“When you are 6 years old in Sudan, you’re already an adult,” said Salma Akol.
She should know. She was 6 years old in Sudan.
Now 21, she is on a culinary arts internship in the kitchen at Heirloom. Her journey here took some turns.
Akol’s father was supporting his wife and four daughters fishing in the Nile River near Khartoum, Sudan, when he took a chance and moved to Beirut. He found restaurant work there, and the family followed after a few months in a temporary camp in Syria to establish citizenship credentials.
“Due to Sudanese government policies, I had attended Muslim classes taught in Arabic,” Akol said. “Then we moved to Lebanon and I attended Catholic school, also in Arabic.”
In 2002, her father saw the tumultuous future in the Middle East and decided to move the family to the U.S., and a cousin recommended Erie, Pennsylvania, as a good place to raise a family. The family had expanded to six kids with the addition of two sons.
Akol’s father is now a manager at a WalMart in Erie.
Akol has attended public and Catholic schools in Erie since fourth grade, and now works with the hotel’s special events staff on her internship from Mercyhurst University, also in Erie. Akol lists her languages, in descending order of fluency, as her parents’ tribal language, Shilluk, English and Sudanese Arabic.
After this journey, Akol is ready for more.
“I’ll go where the wind blows me,” she said.
She is looking for a personal chef position later this year in ethnic, Middle Eastern or African cuisine. After that, Akol said she would probably return to school, aiming toward a career in human rights advocacy or intelligence work. With her background, languages and experience, she should be well prepared for either.
For orchestra concerts at the Amphitheater, virtually every principal movement on and near the stage is orchestrated. Dylan Brawn does much of that orchestrating.
As the orchestra stage manager and mover in his first year at Chautauqua as a member of the Amp crew, Brawn heard about the job from his career development officer at Villa Maria College in the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga, New York. His career adviser had been a member of the Amp crew herself 10 years earlier.
Brawn is responsible for moving orchestra equipment to and from its regular storage at Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall and the Amp.
“The big stuff could be a problem, but our crews have a routine for moving things like a piano, harp or drums,” he said. “We have up to five people on the crew for loading and unloading at the Amp, and others at Lenna. We get what we call move sheets around a week ahead of any scheduled moves related to rehearsal or performance. It’s all pretty well organized.”
The hours are long.
“When the orchestra is playing, many of us work up to 12 hours on those days,” Brawn said.
One of his jobs on performance nights is to make sure the maestro has what is needed, from water to a towel. Brawn usually cues the concertmaster and the announcer for the performance, and can control the stage and house lights.
Brawn is from Hamburg, New York — near Buffalo. He is due to graduate next May with a technology and business-based music degree. He said he plans to focus, initially, on jobs in the Western New York area.
“I might start out my career in a local recording studio,” he said. “I’m most familiar with musicians and will probably concentrate on working with them initially.”
Brawn said he would be open to working as a “roadie” for touring bands if there were an opportunity. He has been a percussionist for several different groups recently, and has performed at Chautauqua with those groups three times over the past two years.
This is Kelsey Lamphere’s sixth summer working at the Sports Club, and as in past years, the steady, intensifying focus of her work is preparing for the Old First Night Run, the Sports Club’s annual fundraiser for the Chautauqua Fund.
“This is our second year of accepting online registrations,” she said. “We have 99 so far online, and another 104 have come by in person. We really start to get a big registration rush in the days leading up to the race, Aug. 2, and it is usually pretty hectic on the morning of the race. We let people register practically right up to race time.
A lot of the same families register year after year, Lamphere said, and it’s always nice to see them again.
Hailing from Hammondsport, New York, Lamphere expects to get her M.A. in elementary and special education next summer from Nazareth College in Rochester, New York. She also received her B.A. from Nazareth.
“I’m certified to teach grades one through nine, but I do love the younger kids,” she said.
She has considered applying to Chautauqua’s Children’s School or Boys’ and Girls’ Club, but always comes back to the Sports Club.
“I just love the club,” Lamphere said. “You meet lots of interesting people at the Sports Club. Sandra Day O’Connor came in one day to play bridge. Many of the big show performers park their bus near the club, and we do meet them from time to time.”
The only child of retired state troopers, Lamphere cherishes the continuity in her life. She met her boyfriend, Josh, who also now works at the Sports Club, in her summer cottage community near Westfield. He attends college in Rochester about a mile from her school. He is also pursuing a career in teaching.
“We have been together for seven years,” she said. “I doubt when we start our careers that we will move too far away from this area.”
“I started at the Daily as a seller on the plaza,” Mac McShane said in the quiet of the newsroom on a Saturday morning.
Now, he is halfway through his seventh summer at the newspaper in his second year as business office manager.
Accomplishing a steady climb up the Daily’s business ladder, McShane worked as a seller at age 12 and 13, then carried papers on a route at 14, did a route and ran papers out to missing paper complainants at 15, ascended to circulation manager at 16, and then took over his current role last year.
“I had actually hoped to go to Europe with some friends this summer,” he said. “But the friends in charge of planning kind of flaked out, so here I am. And it is good to be back at Chautauqua and at the Daily again.”
McShane, whose family is from Baltimore and whose grandmother has a house on the grounds, is off this fall to study business at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
“I know a lot of kids say before college that they already know their major. And often their major changes before they graduate,” he said. “But I am pretty sure business is for me and so I’m aiming to major in economics and accounting.”
His Daily experience has helped shape his career planning, McShane said. He ticked off several changes he had implemented in his time at the paper.
“We added 5 cents to the home delivery cost but had the carriers start their routes at 6:30 a.m., half an hour earlier. They had more money in their pockets and the customers were happy with earlier delivery.”
That, he said, was a “win-win.” Then there was the merging and shuffling of positions within the office.
“More of us can handle complaint issues and the business office associate is here during the busiest hours only,” he said.
Under McShane’s leadership, the business office is greener, too.
“Finally,” McShane said, “we have tightened procedures so we are recycling only half the number of papers as before.”
She is known to her colleagues as “the voice of Chautauqua.”
Karen Hook is the voice callers often hear when they dial the Institution’s main listed phone number. She said she most often hears the following words from callers gratified to hear her unrecorded voice: “Oh, I’m so happy to be talking to a real person.”
There is an obdurate confusion in the minds of many who are unfamiliar with Chautauqua and its purpose. Hook said she fields questions on many days about the “hospital” or the “mental institution,” which must be the function of a place with the surname of Institution.
Growing up in Jamestown, Hook was familiar with Chautauqua before coming to work here around 10 years ago. She has been one of the Institution’s telephone voices for the past three years. Her husband is an engineer retired from Cummins Engine in Jamestown and her daughter, a physician’s assistant, and her son, a concrete construction engineer who worked this year to restore the Rose Cottage on the grounds, live nearby.
“What I have always loved about the Institution is the way you can forget the outside world when you are on the grounds,” she said. “There is a real feeling of safety, of tranquility, here.”
Despite manning her switchboard throughout the year, Hook only works Monday, Wednesday, Friday and every other Saturday. She said ticket requests dominate her calls from just after New Year’s until the season opens, rising linearly and steadily over the months.
“Just before the season begins, it is a madhouse around here,” she said.
Calls range from 25 to 35 per hour during the season.
“The secret to keeping an even disposition through all the repetitive and sometimes wacky calls is to put yourself in the caller’s shoes,” Hook said. “The Golden Rule is still the best.”