Six final stars

There is a sense of change in the air. While Week Nine’s plethora of entertainment and accessible erudition awaits those on the grounds, transition is close. The major arts companies have concluded their seasons. The weather is often a bit cooler. The days are noticeably shorter. Chautauqua is nearing the end of its 2015 season, and many of its seasonal employees have left to return to school or regular employment. Others remain well into the fall. Here are six of their stories.

Frank Finnegan

As much as anyone, Frank Finnegan is the face of Chautauqua for visitors. Affable, helpful and instinctively deferential, he was an early choice to man the large desk at the heart of the Institution’s Visitors Center on Bestor Plaza in the post office building.

Finnegan has spent his adult life helping others. Now in his 11th year at Chautauqua, Finnegan first started at the Turner Community Center, where he helped set up Special Studies classrooms and worked at the makeshift visitors service area. Health issues limited his heavy lifting, so Finnegan worked for several years at the Main Gate assisting with visitor questions and, occasionally, intemperance.

“I like to tell new staff to imagine a husband and wife with two kids, driving for five hours through the August heat to get here,” he said. “They may be a tad grumpy. At the Main Gate, we need to try to take the edge off that grumpiness.”

In the air-conditioned comfort of the Visitors Center, Finnegan said, “We do get swamped at times. During the week, we get really busy for about an hour before the morning lecture, and also afterwards.”

Finnegan works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week.

“Saturday is pretty steady all day, with a lot of people coming by,” he said. “Sundays, before and after the 10:45 a.m. church services, we usually get a crowd, too.”

Prior to coming to Chautuauqua, this native of Bath, New York, worked more than 30 years for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm service agency. Based in Jamestown, he administered federal farm assistance programs for Chautauqua County. Among the benefits he was able to distribute were low-interest loans and grants for price supports and disaster assistance, the latter most often for flood relief.

“A few years ago, Fredonia and the Cassadaga Creek area were devastated by flooding,” Finnegan said. “We moved fast to help affected agricultural producers, especially vineyard owners.”

He and his team also measured countywide agricultural output; if farmers suffered a bad year, and it was because of poor weather, they could offer assistance.

“I cherished moments when I could say the words many consider to be an oxymoron,” Finnegan said. “ ‘I’m with the government and I’m here to help you.’ ”

Kira Goidel

When she finished two years of musical theatre study at SUNY Fredonia last spring, Kira Goidel thought, “Why not stick around in the area for the summer?” She’s spent the season at the Athenaeum Hotel, working at the front desk and a server in Heirloom.

Goidel has also done something few of her colleagues can claim.

“There was a big group from Road Scholars recently,” she said. “Lori Stanton, who organizes their visits to the grounds, knew that I am a singer and musician. She asked me to sing for this group, and to play trombone for them as well. A friend accompanied me on the piano, so we entertained them. It was fun.”

Goidel is an aspiring jazz musician from Yorktown Heights, near New York City. “After two years at Fredonia, I knew that acting and dancing, two key elements of their music theater program, were not for me,” she said. “So I am transferring this fall to SUNY Purchase to pursue my bachelor’s degree in jazz studies.”

Goidel aims to break through in a jazz music business not notably welcoming to women. With the legendary Sarah Vaughan as her “hero and role model,” Goidel aims to blaze some new trails before she is done.

While this is her first summer on the grounds as an employee, Goidel participated in the Chautauqua Jazz Festival two years ago. While in school at Fredonia, she played in two big bands, the Weapons of Jazz Destruction and the Fredonia Jazz Ensemble. She sang on Friday nights at the Brick Room restaurant in Fredonia.

Goidel seems to come by her musical acumen naturally. Her father was a touring jazz trombonist back in the day, playing with the Tommy Dorsey Band on the Amp stage. Her mother is a singer and piano player.

Max Bernard 

Now completing his second year as circulation manager of The Chautauquan Daily, Max Bernard has worked at the paper for four years. Already grooming his potential successor, Bernard does not plan to return next year as he prepares to begin his college career.

In his position at the Daily, Bernard supervises 10 newspaper route carriers and four sellers. The latter are the highly visible and audible Daily hawkers often found around Bestor Plaza in the morning. Bernard fielded 30 applications in the off-season for these positions; eight of his staffers returned this summer. He was directly responsible for hiring the rest.

“The greatest satisfaction in my job is when Chautauquans come in to compliment their carrier,” Bernard said. “We do get complaints, of course, but fortunately, the good responses outweigh those who are dissatisfied.”

“The greatest satisfaction in my job is when Chautauquans come in to compliment their carrier,” Bernard said. “We do get complaints, of course, but fortunately, the good responses outweigh those who are dissatisfied.”

The Daily does get some “weird-sounding” requests, Bernard said.

“One lady wanted us to leave her paper under the street sign at the corner because if the carrier came too close to her house, her dog would bark and wake up the neighborhood,” he said. “Another person specified that his paper should be left on a tree branch.”

Now entering his senior year at Orchard Park High School near Buffalo, Bernard was among the many thousands clobbered by last fall’s epic snowfall in the area.

“We were stuck in the house for three days, and even when we managed to shovel out, there was a travel ban,” he said.

He missed 10 days of school, but did join the many who helped shovel out the Buffalo Bills stadium in an attempt to keep that Sunday’s game in Buffalo.

Bernard hopes to become a mechanical engineer and is focused on the University of Buffalo’s engineering department for his college choice. Bernard has traveled frequently with his civil engineer father to jobs in Las Vegas, Texas and New York City.

“It was a great introduction to engineering firms,” he said.

Susan Guenther

Standing in the Gardens Department and waiting for a room to open, Susan Guenther suddenly disappeared. Shortly after, she was found, watering can in hand, tending to the planters lining the front of the gardens building across Route 394 from the Institution’s Main Gate.

“It wouldn’t look good for the Gardens Department’s plants to wilt, would it?” she said.

Guenther has made a difference in her first year at Chautauqua after several years in different positions at the Jamestown Audubon Society.

“I also did a lot of private gardening, seasonal house watching, and working at the Ashville General Store,” she said.

Guenther has lived in the town of Busti, New York, “way out in the woods,” for 25 years. She currently shares her house with two dogs, one a “foster failure with another family, the other rescued/adopted from a dairy farm down the road.”

Guenther lives on four acres of land, and “I do a lot of growing on part of it.” About one half-acre is devoted to blueberry bushes she inherited and developed, and also to raspberries and strawberries she introduced.

Guenther doesn’t sell her fruit, except to people who hear about her from their friends, and she barters many of the berries she doesn’t keep for personal use.

When she’s not raising various plants, Guenther spends her free time in nature.

“I grew up a Monongahela River rat south of Pittsburgh,” she said. “While the nearest good whitewater rafting is still down below Pittsburgh, friends and I will sometimes do some creek adventuring here when the water piles up and moves fast in local streams.”

Guenther will also take long hikes in deep winter snow, “just because I love nature and the outdoors so much. Snowshoes are definitely on my wish list after last winter.”

Crashing through crusted snow far from her home on a winter day feels, she said, “a bit like quicksand. I have never really felt in peril, though I have sometimes gone out with friends looking for sleeping bears. Probably just as well we didn’t find any.”

Eric Thomas

“I do like to cook,” Eric Thomas said. The Athenaeum Hotel’s first-year events chef loves his job, enjoys the camaraderie in the hotel’s large kitchen and is planning to return here next summer. Thomas received his associate’s degree in culinary arts this spring from Mercyhurst University’s North East, Pennsylvania, campus.

As a member of the hotel’s events staff, Thomas is part of a team that caters two to eight events every day during the season. The events partly are initiated by the Institution’s Development Office and partly are private functions on or near the grounds. Basically, the events staff covers everything the hotel caters which is neither in the hotel nor in the president’s cottage.

Thomas was referred to Executive Chef Travis Bensink by head events chef Carrie Gifford, who was a Mercyhurst classmate of Thomas. He has caught on quickly in the hotel kitchen, and has picked up the nickname “Favorite.”

“I’m not really sure where that came from,” Thomas said. “I guess maybe it’s because it’s because my overall preparedness level is pretty high.”

Thomas said the high volume of work for the events staff often leads to a rushed feeling.

“We will get days when there are several events to cater that all occur at roughly the same time,” he said. “We have to find the space and time to do it all on time, and if we need to redo a dish, we have to factor that in too. We have good teamwork on the events staff, and it’s essential in any busy kitchen.”

Thomas will stay on after the season.

“Our events staff will get really busy with weddings in September and early October,” he said.

Miranda Ressler

Now in her fourth year and an assistant manager at the Afterwords Café on Bestor Plaza, Miranda Ressler has seen the café evolve and develop.

“We are a lot busier than four years ago, that’s for sure,” she said. “And the menu is expanding every year. This year, we added several luncheon items, including a meatloaf sandwich and meatball grinder.”

Ressler said the café has “lots of repeat customers, and a surprising number who visit us every day during the season. They make menu and other suggestions, and I think we are pretty open to accepting them. We’ve had strong interest in coffee cake for next year, for instance. It’s on our list to look at.”

Miranda Ressler

A native of Westfield, Ressler is a rising junior at Kent State University where she is a psychology major. There, she’s a member of the National Leadership Society and the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, both of which encourage goal setting and volunteer involvement in local communities.

“I carry a full, 18-hour credit load at school and worked last year 30 to 35 hours per week at the local Target store,” she said. “I might apply back there as an assistant manager. It doesn’t leave a lot of free time.”

At the Afterwords Café, Ressler’s position requires her to master all the skills her staffers apply behind the counter — everything from how to operate the register and credit card machines, to knowing how to make every item on the menu.

A cook at the nearby Brick Walk Cafe prepares quiches starting at 5 a.m. each day, and Ressler and her colleagues help to assign the variety and number of each.

“It’s a busy job, but our regulars make it all worthwhile,” Ressler said.