Fourteen drivers, seven vans, nine weeks and 100,000 miles — those numbers add up to a summer working as a Chautauqua Institution shuttle driver.
Lecturers, Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra soloists, guests of the Voice Program, chaplains, performers — name the guest, and they likely need a ride from their airport or hotel to the grounds.
Travel coordinator Betsy Miller receives requests from around eight different departments, including the Department of Education, Department of Religion and areas within the Program Office, such as visual arts, dance, theater and music.
Established in the late 1970s, the service functions because of the dedication of its employees, Miller said. The program’s roster includes 14 drivers — Scott Brasted, Jeff Carlson, Bob Hendrickson, Marty Hendrickson, Ernie Howard, Jerry Ireland, John Jackson, Ron Keller, Sid Lyons, Sam Prinzi, David Shideler, Bill Storey, Gordon Wahlgren and Jerry Warner.
They are accompanied by head driver Bill Brockman and car detailer Steve Cusimano.
The drivers’ most common route is to and from Buffalo Niagara International Airport, which adds up to 150 miles, Miller said. The schedule changes daily, even though it is planned three to four days in advance, and drivers have to keep their schedules open and flexible.
Brockman, who has been a driver since 1999, said the program has evolved drastically since its era of pagers and 9-pound portable phones.
When he joined the team, there were five full-time and two part-time employees, and not nearly as many runs to be made.
There’s a saying the drivers all have: Sometimes, you’re just the driver, Jackson said.
“I had one [trip] recently, who I was really looking forward to, and she got in the back and put on a sleep mask,” he said. “That was a pretty clear sign.”
While some aren’t as chatty as others, Jackson said each guest is different. Tom Brokaw and his wife, Meredith, were fun — by the time they arrived in Chautauqua last summer, Meredith had climbed into the front seat. Jackson once discussed religion with a Seventh-day Adventist for an entire drive, and he said one of the most interesting conversations he’s had was with Jonathan Alter of Newsweek.
“[Alter] suggested that he thought Obama might emerge [in the 2008 elections], and I was courteous, but I didn’t think that was going to happen,” Jackson said. “When Obama was elected, I sent him an email: ‘I’m eating crow, but it sure tastes good.’ ”
Drivers are often asked about Chautauqua itself, Jackson said.
Details about the size of the grounds, the surrounding areas, private properties and other activities are information they provide regularly.
“If they invite it, I will give them a typical day — from the morning lecture to the evening special,” Jackson said. “But sometimes we’re just the driver, and that’s fine. They don’t owe us anything.”
To complete their jobs, Chautauqua’s drivers require more skills than a command of the steering wheel, Miller said.
Reading people and reacting appropriately to a situation is something each driver has to master — they have the word “ambassador” embroidered on their shirts for a reason, she said.
“They’re the first and last representative of Chautauqua that those people see,” Miller said. “The drivers really take that ambassadorship to heart.”
The only issue, Jackson said, is picking up a real ambassador.
“When that happens, I try to hide the ‘ambassador’ on my shirt,” Jackson said. “People meet us first and we always take that seriously. Little things like that are important to us.”
On average, the drives are pleasant, and the conversations are occasionally mentioned by a 10:45 a.m. lecturer, Brockman said — Roger Rosenblatt even mentions, quotes and gently mocks a Chautauqua driver in his novel Lapham Rising.
The shuttle service has transformed into a necessity for the visitors, Brockman said, and the personal mode of transportation has become a staple of the Chautauqua experience.
“It’s one of the behind-the-scenes things that has evolved and has become quite a necessity for our visitors,” Brockman said. “This service facilitates their ability to relax and know they’re going to get here safely — they’re comforted knowing that when they get here, there’s someone waiting for them.”
The shuttle service is currently compiling an interest list of possible drivers. Anyone who is interested in joining the team should contact Betsy Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.