Young seasonal employees use Chautauqua experiences to prepare for bigger things
John Ford | Staff Writer
Photos by Lauren Rock
Each summer, hundreds of high school- and college-aged young people travel to Chautauqua to work. Their reasons for coming vary, but family ties and traditions play a large role for many. The allure in the region of working at the Institution is a significant attraction. Early career professional development counts for some.
Each has a story to tell.
Here are some of them.
Remember the movie The Guardian? Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher were Coast Guard rescue swimmers.
That is exactly what Athenaeum Hotel server and Busti, N.Y., resident Victor Hallett wants to do, starting as early as next year. Now in his third year in the hotel dining room, Hallett is one of the servers who work the porch as well as the main dining room.
By next spring, he expects to earn his degree in mechanical technology and photography from Jamestown Community College.
“In mechanical technology,” Hallett said, “you take engineering plans and implement them. It’s a field between the mechanical engineer who does the engine plans and the person who repairs the engines when they break down. A mechanical tech fixes what causes the engines to fail.”
Hallett’s father has made a career in the field at the Cummins plant in Jamestown.
Photography has long been Hallett’s avocation.
“I’ve been lucky enough to shoot several local weddings and the Bemus Bay Pops,” he said. “In a perfect world in the future, I’d be able to manage my own photography studio.”
A regret this summer was that Hallett’s schedule at the hotel precluded his attending lectures and other appearances by National Geographic staffers during Week Four.
After graduation from Jamestown Community College, Hallett hopes to attend the Coast Guard’s rigorous rescue swimmer school. The school’s eight-week program produces a 50 percent attrition rate. Hallett is undeterred.
“This is really what I want to do,” he said.
He has been swimming competitively for 12 years, specializing in backstroke and freestyle. He finished in fourth place in backstroke at a recent regional junior college swim championship meet.
“I’m ready for the challenges of being a rescue swimmer,” he said with conviction.
Laura Boniface knows Chautauqua much better now for having worked at the Sports Club all season.
“Working here makes such a difference,” she said. “You meet so many more people in a job, especially a job dealing with the public like mine.”
She mans the desk at the club and assists with things like boat rentals and the Old First Night Run/Walk/Swim.
In the week before this year’s race, Boniface said registrations were down from last year, but all shirts sold out before the race, and there was a big last-minute sign-up surge.
“Aside from the initial clump of serious racers, the race itself was fun and very recreational,” she said. “It was funny to watch the walkers, whose finish depended on matching their estimated times. No watches allowed.”
Boniface’s dad, an orthopedic surgeon practicing in the leafy Youngstown suburb of Poland, Ohio, had come to Bemus Point for summers since he was a teenager, she said, so there is a family tradition with Chautauqua Lake. Boniface spent two late teenage years at Girls’ Club.
A rising Kenyon College sophomore, Boniface is studying pre-medicine and planning to major in neuroscience or history.
“I’m facing a lot of hard science courses either way,” she said, “but I get more of a break with a history major. I’m leaning that way.”
Informally recruited to Division III at Kenyon as a right-side volleyball hitter, Boniface has found herself drawn instead to lacrosse.
“I love the coach and my teammates,” she said, “but the time demands of a tough academic load and playing a varsity sport are way more than most people realize. My teammates and I have a good support group at the library, where we often see more athletes than anyone else.
“You know what, though?” she said. “My parents are together, supportive, and they’ve given me lots of opportunities already. I know how lucky I am.”
David Holcomb is from Erie, Pa. His family has a cottage in Mayville, so coming to Chautauqua is a tradition. A bellman at the Athenaeum Hotel and a head server at the President’s Cottage this summer, Holcomb is in his fifth season working at the Institution. Previously, he had worked at the Refectory serving ice cream, and as a waiter and piano player in the hotel’s dining room.
Working special presidential dinners for speakers, donors, artists and others, Holcomb is “overwhelmed by the graciousness there. President Becker and his wife make everyone feel special.
“Mr. Becker made sure I had a chance to visit with Sandra Day O’Connor recently. Justice O’Connor admitted that Yale Law School, where I’ll head after the season, is a fine law school. She also said her alma mater, Stanford, is superior,” he said.
Holcomb likes the small class size and down-to-earth atmosphere at Yale.
Mixed in with his Chautauqua summers and graduating with degrees in political science and economics from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Holcomb has been accumulating some enviable credentials.
He spent the last two summers interning for Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar and at the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland.
“Both were geared toward educating and informing the interns,” Holcomb said. “I got to work some on the Senate Foreign Affairs committee with the senator, and monitoring the public policy connection between municipal bonds and state pension systems at the Fed.”
Nonetheless, Chautauqua has influenced and shaped Holcomb.
“One of my law school essays was about all the famous people who come here to Chautauqua,” he said. “And it really felt good to be back here after two years wearing a suit and working in marble buildings.”
A highlight this summer was getting to hear one of Holcomb’s heroes, pianist and Grammy-winning contralto vocalist Diana Krall. “She’s one of the best, someone to try to emulate, for sure,” he said.
Colin Braeger sits behind $25,000 worth of equipment that constitutes the master sound console in the Amphitheater. In his first Chautauqua season, Breager admits it is a rush to be behind so much expensive hardware.
“In the Amp,” he said, “you’re basically dealing with two senses: with sound and sight, audio and visual. We sound technicians control the audio part.
“There is a lot of stress and pressure during performances,” Braeger said. “I mostly run the board for morning worship and lectures. There is normally almost no technical rehearsal time beforehand, so I have to basically tune the speaker’s voice to our system as they preach and orate.”
Braeger earned his associate’s degree in music from Jamestown Community College two years ago. At the college, he did audio work for school theater productions and began to form career goals. Though he had a full-time graphic arts and print job after graduation, he was always looking for a job in audio entertainment.
An early break came with an offer to tour with Jamestown’s long-running multi-platinum alternative rock band, the 10,000 Maniacs.
“I just got back from Las Vegas with the band,” Braeger said. “On other gigs, we’ve been to Chicago, New Jersey, New England. We’ve played clubs in downtown L.A., Napa Valley. I dig the life. I’m OK to be on the bus for three or four weeks at a time.”
Meantime, Braeger often finds himself facilitating roadies and technicians who accompany big name acts on Chautauqua appearances.
“In roadie kingdom,” he said, “respect almost always gets returned. Disrespect always does. I always give the visitors their position. Things go better that way.
“Many times, we will just help the roadies patch into our outputs and so forth. We essentially give them the keys to our system and are on hand to help as needed,” he said.
The product of a Jamestown musical family who often attended Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra performances, Braeger plays upright bass and electric guitar. While he waits to land a steady job in audio entertainment, he is preparing a proposal to teach a course in audio tech communication at Jamestown Community College.
Drew Hudson is in his fourth season as a Chautauqua lifeguard. Hudson, from nearby Ashville, is a sophomore at Baldwin-Wallace College in Cleveland, studying athletic training. He loves to lift weights and swim, and fitness is a passion for him. He looks fit, and he projects a palpable positive energy.
Hudson has cerebral palsy, which affects his entire right side. He also has a pronounced stutter. Both conditions result from a grade-four bleed in his brain when he was an infant.
“The hemorrhage was probably the result of an aneurysm,” Hudson said. “Besides my stutter, which is pretty obvious, the right side weakness becomes most significant when I lift weights. I do have to focus pretty intently on that side to avoid any imbalance. Dumbbell lifting works well.”
Hudson does not have to overcompensate to swim straight lines in a pool.
“I’m good to do all the in-service swims,” he said.
Hudson has worked two seasons in the waterfront crew at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club but is also happy at Turner Community Center pool.
“Wow, I’ve met so many interesting people in both places,” he said. “Thankfully, there is a lot of interaction with people in both jobs, just that it’s mostly kids at Club and adults here at the pool.”
Hudson’s first real exposure to the Institution came when the Panama, N.Y., swim team practiced at Chautauqua while their pool was being rebuilt several years ago. He was a lifeguard with the team.
“I’ve come to love Chautauqua,” he said. “I’m proud to be part of a good team here.”
Kelley McLaughlin has written several novels. She just submitted the most recent for publication. She speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, has studied in China and just received a three-year full scholarship to study at a Chinese university starting this fall.
McLaughlin estimates she can write “around 3,500 Chinese characters.” She is fluent in French and studied Irish literature at Bard College, from which she graduated this spring.
McLaughlin is from Sinclairville in Cassadaga County. She works this summer as an expediter, assembling and delivering food orders across the counter at the Brick Walk Cafe.
“Well, even though the Chinese government is taking care of all my expenses for the next three years,” McLaughlin said, “I wanted some spending money and needed a job close to home to be near my family.”
So there she is, spending her first summer at Chautauqua.
A member of one of the first three or four graduating classes from Chautauqua Lake Central School, McLaughlin moved there “because my parents felt it was an educational upgrade from Cassadaga schools. At CLCS, everything was new and many high-achieving kids transferred there,” she said.
A vegetarian and avid cook, McLaughlin said a favorite dish she prepares for herself is fragrant garlic tofu. It is not standard fare at the Brick Walk Cafe, but McLaughlin said the restaurant is doing well this summer.
“We get jammed on Friday nights after the big concerts and Sunday afternoons with the crowds on the grounds, but overall things are good,” she said.
This fall, at Qingdao University in China, McLaughlin will examine the effect of James Joyce’s work on modern Chinese literature, especially because the first translation of Ulysses didn’t appear until 1994.