As the summer season winds down, the beat goes on for some on staff
For Chautauquans, visitors and seasonal staff members, the end of Week Eight heralds the beginning of the end of the summer season. Earlier school and college openings in the fall have led families to depart before Week Nine, and crowds on the grounds are often smaller than in peak mid-season weeks. For many other Institution staffers, however, the beat goes on, and their work continues well beyond the final three taps of the presidential gavel and the sonorous sounds of Handel’s “Largo” at the season’s final Sacred Song Service.
Six of these employees shared their stories with The Chautauquan Daily.
Now in his sixth year at Chautauqua working in the gardens department, Haas has for the past four years been a project crew leader. Leading groups of three to 10 others, Haas has principal responsibility for new gardens.
He is thus a main caretaker for the legacy of the late Ryan Kiblin, whose passing last month cast a pall over the Institution.
“We were shocked, like everyone was,” Haas said. “But working hard and caring for her gardens is a way of showing respect. We all pitched in and bought an engraved rock honoring Ryan.”
The stone will be placed prominently on the grounds.
Haas spends around eight months a year at the Institution, starting in early April and often working until Thanksgiving.
“We get after it in the spring — doing the prep work, laying in the new annuals, cleaning up after the winter and often working around the unpredictable weather in this area,” he said. “During the season, it’s largely maintenance stuff like mowing, trimming hedges and weeding in the gardens. Then some of us hang around through the fall and gather the leaves. We don’t do snow, though.”
During his four months away from Chautauqua, Haas works as a lift operator at Copper Mountain ski resort in Colorado.
“The schedules of my two jobs actually link up very well,” he said.
Originally from Brocton, New York, Haas now lives in Jamestown. He tried Jamestown Community College for a year, majoring in criminal justice.
“I found that I really love working outside best,” he said. “College wasn’t for me, at least not then. Gardens work really suits me. I might go back to school someday, but this time I might pursue landscape architecture.”
“I know what I want,” Kaitlyn Davalos said, and the look in her eyes revealed the strength of her vision. “My goal is to open up a restaurant.”
Chautauqua is part of her journey. Davalos is working this summer as a server in the new Heirloom Restaurant at the Athenaeum Hotel and, when needed, has been a bartender and waitress at Institution fundraising events.
Describing herself as independent, determined and hardworking, Davalos grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. Davalos’ father is a retired wholesale club manager, her mother a retired post office supervisor.
“My parents have been very supportive,” she said. “My mom wanted me to be a chef, and my dad favored my studying psychology or philosophy.”
Davalos enrolled at Johnson and Wales University to further her culinary ambitions.
“I went to school full of enthusiasm, especially for farm-to-table and other organic styles,” she said. “I only made it through two trimesters at school, though. It turned out that the classroom is not for me. I wanted to learn through experience and doing things.”
Davalos traveled around the United States, ending up in North Carolina. There, in Greensboro, she met a chef who shared her aspirations to open a restaurant. Erin Hollas aspired to work the back of the house; Davalos would happily work out front. When Hollas decided to join his mentor Travis Bensink in Chautauqua this summer, Davalos came along and quickly joined the Athenaeum staff.
“I dream of opening a restaurant with a roof garden and a fantastic kitchen,” she said. “I dream that I will build my own house.”
Meantime, she and Hollas will stay on at Chautauqua after the season — at least until the hotel closes down for the year — learning as much as they can and saving for a dream.
This is Lena Young’s first year working in the ticketing department at the Institution’s Main Gate, but she has seen and enjoyed it enough to know she wants to return next year.
“It’s often quite busy, and there’s always the opportunity to help visitors,” she said. “We do get frustrated customers at times, but most of the people appreciate our efforts to assist them. It’s fun, and there is satisfaction in the work.”
Young is from nearby Sherman, New York, and worked the past two seasons at Bellinger Hall, setting up the salad bar, cutting vegetables, doing some line prep work in the kitchen. Her older sister works at Bellinger this summer.
The middle child among three sisters, Young will enroll this fall at St. Bonaventure University to study elementary and early childhood education. Her reasoning is simple.
“I want a job when I graduate,” she said.
Young’s mother teaches kindergarten in the Panama Central School District. Her father, a dual Canadian-American citizen from Toronto, is a manager at an engineering plant in Monterrey, Mexico. He comes home for a week every month.
“My dad’s plant makes plastic axles for toys and even for moveable garbage cans,” Young said. “We are always noticing evidence of his work.”
Young is an accomplished soprano, achieving all-county and conference all-state honors during high school, where she sang lead in two school musicals and was accepted to West Virginia University’s vocal performance program. She opted for a career in education, but will keep up with her vocal work.
She also loves the outdoors.
“My favorite place is Colorado,” Young said. “I have volunteered at the Birds of Prey World Cup races held in November at Beaver Creek. We go out there as a family, and the mountains and Vail Valley are so beautiful. Skiing is something we all enjoy, and I have worked as a ski instructor at Peek’n Peak.”
“I guess my family would qualify as part of the local Swedish mafia,” Nicole Lindstrom said with a laugh. “We used to have a draft horse at home, and my father and I would take it to local festivals for kids to ride. The Swedish ethnic fairs in this area are a pretty big thing.”
Lindstrom has been a special functions manager at the Athenaeum Hotel for three years, having started at the hotel seven years ago as a dishwasher and working her way up the ladder. All of her siblings have worked on the grounds.
Lindstrom is from Sherman, New York. She graduated from Fredonia in May with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a minor in athletic coaching. Lindstrom played basketball in high school and college, and aims for a doctorate in physical therapy down the road. She is curious about the Southern U.S., and may pursue her doctorate there.
She enjoys her busy summers at the hotel. There are evening buffets at the Hall of Missions to arrange for the Department of Religion, “drop-offs” all over the grounds for the development office, numerous bus groups here on day trips and her personal favorites, the private events in homes around the grounds.
“The private home events are more personal,” Lindstrom said. “It has been a special pleasure to get to know Chautauquans at these functions.”
Amid the frenzied activity of her days, Lindstrom loves to settle in for a few moments on the front lawn of the hotel with a good book and a cup of coffee.
“That is the best,” she said. Janet Evanovich and Harlan Coben are current favorites.
A big, if long-suffering, Buffalo Bills fan, Lindstrom has a new passion. She proudly pointed out her gleaming new Kawasaki Ninja 300 motorcycle, which she rides when the weather permits.
“That’s my baby,” she said.
“I want my picture with my team,” Afterwords Café manager Anne Eklund said. “We’re all pulling together here, and they’re with me.”
In charge of the café since it opened on Bestor Plaza eight years ago, Eklund laughs frequently as she navigates the peaks and valleys of a busy day on the grounds.
Originally from Altoona, Pennsylvania, Eklund has taken a circuitous journey to the Institution. The fifth of 10 children, she won a full scholarship to study music at the Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia. Completing her degree at Longwood University, the young mezzo-soprano set out on an opera career.
“I love the singing, but I also love being the actress,” she said.
Eklund worked for a time at the Virginia Opera company, and was a semifinalist at the Metropolitan Opera regional auditions held in Washington, D.C. Her career took her to Houston, Chicago and finally Memphis, Tennessee.
There, she met her husband, a mechanical technician for Noritsu America Corporation.
“My husband — he’s Swedish, I’m not — started out covering a specific territory fixing one-hour-photo machines. Then Noritsu moved into equipment for ophthalmologists, and his career brought us to Lakewood.”
In the off-season, Eklund is a director, actor and singer at the Lucille Ball Little Theater of Jamestown, a busy community theater.
“Several Chautauquans do shows with us,” she said.
Eklund was the first woman in her family to earn a college degree. Her son and twin daughters all earned their college degrees too, she proudly notes. Raising a family was probably good practice for managing her current café staff of 18 high school and college students.
“We do try to have some fun while we work hard,” Eklund said.
Her friends and colleagues call Institution housekeeper Sarann Rotunda “Saran Wrap.”
“I encourage them to do it,” she said, “because at first it helps them to remember my name.”
When asked about her first name, Rotunda chuckled.
“It was a combination of the names of my aunts Sarah and Ann. I’m actually of English/Irish background,” she said.
Having spent 19 seasons cleaning Chautauqua’s scores of buildings and dormitories, Rotunda, who lives in Ripley, New York, looks at her work good-naturedly.
“When you’re spending your days cleaning bathrooms and emptying wastebaskets, a good sense of humor helps a lot,” she said.
The high morale in the housekeeping staff stems from the lighthearted but serious approach they share.
Rotunda grew up in New Jersey and went off to join the Navy and see the world. She was not disappointed.
“After boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland, I started out as a postal clerk,” she said.
Rising to the enlisted rank of petty officer second class, Rotunda moved around the U.S. because it offered more promotion potential. She was on active duty for 7½ years, then moved to the reserves for a few years afterward.
She got married, and travelled with her husband for tours in Keflavik, Iceland; San Diego; Holy Loch, Scotland; and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The couple, now separated, has one son.
Rotunda works on the grounds around six months each year. She is active in her offseason with the ladies auxiliary at the Ripley Fire Department, and a highlight for her is playing Mrs. Claus for the benefit of kids visiting the fire hall. She also takes her Christmas role on the road, visiting area nursing homes with her Santa Claus partner, a Ripley fireman.
“We also try to visit with families who are homebound,” Rotunda said. “It’s so nice to do special things over the holidays for those who have less than we do.”