Six stars: Seasonal employees help make it all happen

Chautauqua’s 2015 season passed its midpoint this week. The major arts programs are all in full swing, and there are still significant orchestra, theater, opera, music, arts and dance events to look forward to. The education and religion departments fill the days with erudition. Hundreds of smaller events enrich the cultural smorgasbord to which Chautauquans have become accustomed.

And behind the scenes, hundreds of seasonal employees help to make it all happen. Many began their part-time work well before the season began at the end of June, and will continue on well after the season ends. The Daily spoke with six of these workers. Here are their stories.

Art Breitenbach

An Avon Lake, Ohio, native, genial Art Breitenbach has been returning to Chautauqua for 45 years with his wife Mary Lou, who introduced him to Chautauqua after they met. Ironically, it is now Art who is the more dedicated Chautauquan. His wife comes up for weekends or a week now and then, he said, but not for the whole season.

When Breitenbach applied for the administrative assistant job on Amphitheater General Manager Keith Schmitt’s staff five years ago, he was told the position was better suited for a college student. He said “hire me anyway,” and they did. Nobody has looked back since.

Breitenbach is a familiar face around the grounds, helping Schmitt with the myriad responsibilities associated with keeping Chautauqua’s entertainment centerpiece on track.

“I’m usually in the office by 7 a.m., and I try to get out of here by 6 p.m., but the days do often stretch well into the evening,” he said. “I stay practically next door to the Amp, and that helps.”

For many years, Breitenbach owned Breit’s Kitchens, a residential kitchen remodeling business with 12 employees that offered its services throughout the Cleveland area. When he retired, Breitenbach sold the business to his brother.

“We did do one job on the grounds,” he said. “About 10 years ago, I was in the CLSC Alumni Hall kitchen and told the manager that its condition made me uneasy. It looked like they could burn down the place at any time.”

Not six months later, former Institution Operations Director Doug Conroe was on the phone, saying a donor had offered renovation money.

“We gave the Institution a family discount on the work,” Breitenbach said.

Hannah Bensink

Experienced athletes have a certain way to speak to strangers. It involves a guarded, focused politeness. It resembles the response of someone trained in the military. There’s a friendly efficiency about it.

Hannah Bensink, Athenaeum Hotel’s Heirloom Restaurant shift manager, carries her conversation in the same way. This is her first year in Chautauqua as a manager. A cousin of Travis Bensink, the hotel’s executive chef, Hannah bussed tables at the hotel four years ago. The local took advantage of free Sundays on the grounds to walk around and experience Chautauqua’s charm.

A business and finance major at St. Rose College in Albany, New York, Bensink will complete her college degree in under three years — the result of the many Advanced Placement courses she took at Jamestown High School. She played goalie for the Division II school’s varsity soccer team, but is more likely to have a poster of Warren Buffett on her wall than of Hope Solo.

“I’m looking at big banking and investment houses after graduating next year,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t have ideals. I think money can travel. It can help people do things. When money is flowing efficiently, the whole economy does better. And I believe strongly in giving back.”

Bensink will spend fall organizing the Thanksgiving project in Albany, New York. The project aims to provide dinner and transportation for families who would not otherwise be able to enjoy what she calls “the only remaining unaffiliated holiday in the U.S. It seems all the others have been commandeered by religious, ethnic or even political groups.”

Bensink is already a prodigiously hard worker, usually carrying a full 18-credit load while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average at college. She also works at Dave and Buster’s as a dining and cocktail shift manager. This summer, in addition to lengthy periods in the Heirloom, she makes time to work a couple of weekend shifts as floor manager at the Stockton Grill, which is owned and operated by her father.

Nate Waite

This is Nate Waite’s fourth summer working in the Institution’s gardens and landscaping department, and his second serving as a crew chief.

“A lot of what I have been doing these last seasons has been mulching and trimming,” he said. “The mulching is substantially done pre-season, but we’re spot mulching and trimming all summer long.”

Last winter, Waite said, was especially hard on the many privet hedges around the grounds. Many have failed and, particularly in the oval garden area adjacent to the Athenaeum Hotel, have been replaced by a variety of mature native shrubs.

“The privet hedges are not native to this area,” Waite said.

This past harsh winter accelerated what will likely be a long-term effort to introduce area native replacements.

Waite is one of several gardens employees who wind up working between seven and eight months each year to keep the grounds beautiful. Now living in Mayville, Waite plans to spend the coming off-season working at Copper Mountain in Colorado.

An avid hiker, camper and snowboarder, Waite would now like to spend more time in Colorado, including going to college to study environmental science. His steady employment here and in the off-season is helping to build a nest egg to fund his education.

Waite’s father is an Air Force reservist whose career moved the family around for many years. Now, his dad is a Jamestown endodontist — “someone who performs root canals,” Waite said.

His younger sister was adopted from Shanghai.

“We were told the temperatures sometimes reached 120 degrees at the orphanage where she lived until our family adopted her,” Waite said.

As he waits to start college, Waite indulges his primary avocation — landscaping.

“I do my parents’ yard, and friends’ too,” he said. “I’m passionate about landscaping. So my Chautauqua job works well for me.”

Walker O’Neil

“I know I’m aiming for the stars here,” Walker O’Neil said. “But it’s what I want to do. And I am preparing for other things if I don’t get what I want right away.”

O’Neil wants a career studying primate behavior. He’d like to emulate Jane Goodall, whose most recent book is a fixture in his backpack.

From Fredonia, O’Neil is in his first year as a ticket agent in Chautauqua’s Welcome Center. He found out about the job and was “sort of recruited” by one of his friends. The summer has passed relatively peacefully so far in the ticket office, O’Neil said, “and that’s a good thing.”

O’Neil is familiar with the grounds. While getting his associate’s degree from Jamestown Community College, he worked on projects centered on Chautauqua Lake eutrophication — a fancy word for pollution by nutrients, which in this case, is mostly phosphates.

“We would do biological inventories of some of the lake tributaries which pass through the grounds,” he said. “I would spend time down by the Girls’ Club.” Some of his work supplemented efforts by the Chautauqua Lake conservation groups.

O’Neil will transfer to Cornell this fall, majoring in animal science. “I am definitely planning to pursue a Ph.D., and Cornell has a good program,” he said.

Also on his agenda is the Peace Corps.

“Cornell actually has courses which prepare students for service in the Peace Corps,” O’Neil said.

He also wants to develop and build skills such as computer coding that will sustain him as he pursues his ultimate dream.

“Also, I believe I would enjoy pursuing certification as a welder.”

While all this has been underway, O’Neil has traveled to Spain — “I’d love to live in the Spanish Pyrenees Mountains one day,” he said — and managed to gain a proficiency in French by Skyping with French-speaking acquaintances online.

“There is a whole Internet network out there comprised of people who want to learn other languages and can pursue this wish by speaking with others online,” he said.

Brooke Findlay

“I kind of know what to expect every day, but there are always differences from the days before,” Brooke Findlay said in discussing her job as a second-year cash receipts clerk in the Finance Office in the Colonnade. Along with a couple of colleagues, Findlay is charged with keeping track of cash revenues from the Athenaeum Hotel, stores, restaurants and other revenue facilities around the grounds of the Institution.

“Credit card receipts must be reconciled on the same day, but for cash, we can use a bit of discretion,” she said. “For instance, the Sports Club submits cash receipts, but most all of them are Old First Night-related, and aren’t usually big enough, so we have to reconcile them each day. It will get busy now that Old First Night is closer.”

Findlay graduated this year from SUNY Brockport, near Rochester, New York.

“Most of the students attend the school for teaching, sports medicine or athletic training,” she said. “I majored in communication with a minor in business administration, so my Chautauqua job is good training and preparation for what I might do in the future.”

Findlay’s father works for the large Cummins, Inc. Jamestown Engine Plant, and she moved to this area from Scotland at the age of three.

“My whole large family — except for my parents, sister and me — still lives in Shotts, about halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow,” she said.

Cummins has a plant in Shotts.

Singing and physical fitness are leisure time passions for Findlay, who has sung in various choirs for most of her life. She also enjoys running, having done the Lucy Town Half Marathon in Jamestown earlier this year and the Old First Night Run in 2014.

“I’d do the OFN Run again this year, but I have to work that day,” she said.

She also practices kickboxing a couple of weeks at a martial arts studio in Jamestown.

Sara Baglia

Flame-haired gate staffer Sara Baglia “feels like a rock star” on Saturday and Sunday nights at the Institution’s Main Gate. Her supervisor has regularly praised her ability to keep cars moving through this central choke point while remaining courteous and efficient.

“You have to be firm but always pleasant,” Baglia says. “Since I have worked at the Main Gate the whole time last year, and so far this year, I know a lot of regulars who use it. Even if you have to turn someone back for any reason, there are ways to do it without holding up a whole line of cars. The guy who taught me the ropes last year said, ‘You are either the first or the last barrier to admittance for visitors. Always be pleasant, but move them along.’ I do try to do that.”

Another trait that endears Baglia to her regulars is her uncanny ability to identify their dog’s breed. “I do study canine breeds, and it comes in handy when my regulars pass through the gate with their dogs on board,” she said.

A graduate of nearby Panama Central Schools and holder of an associate’s degree in veterinary technology from Alfred State University, Baglia aspires to become a paramedic.

“My brother-in-law is a police officer in Chesterfield, Virginia, near Richmond, and I think I have a good chance to get admitted to the EMT training at the fire academy there,” Baglia said.

After the Chautauqua season, she may volunteer at the Panama Fire Department.

Baglia lived on the grounds off-season as a child, and cleaned houses on the grounds two summers ago, so she knows the lay of the land of the Institution.

“That helps more than I would have thought because it is amazing how many people pass through the gate uncertain about how to reach their destination,” she said.

In her spare time, Baglia is “an outdoors girl. I like camping, riding and hiking. I guess my favorite place is Cooks Forest State Park, a couple of hours south of here in Pennsylvania.”