Seven Stars: The Workers Behind Chautauqua

Lon Knappenberger, poses for a portrait at the main gate on June 29, 2016.

[huge_it_gallery id=”3″]

The Great American Independence Day weekend is here, and the next three days will witness the renewal of countless family traditions. Chautauquans, their families and guests will join visitors as all enjoy the many pleasures of holidays at the Institution.

Many are likely to marvel at Chautauqua’s gardens and grounds. Others will check out the Artist Village at the rear of the Amphitheater as the Amp continues in its season of transition. Most will share experiences with the Institution’s gate and ticketing staffs. And they may grab a bite to eat at the cafes along Bestor Plaza. To get into the spirit of things, the Daily spoke to seven of the hundreds of summer seasonal employees who work so hard to make the season a success.

Mike and Alexis Stanley

These siblings are among the many returning gardeners who bolster the gardens and landscaping staff this summer. Mike is two years older than Alexis. The two live with their mother in Ashville, New York. When we spoke, Alexis had just come from the greenhouse. She had been designing floral patterns for the Artist Village and other areas at the back of the Amp. Mike had already been out with the “mow crew” trimming lawns and landscaping.

Alexis Stanley is now in her second year at Jamestown Community College, “taking all the math courses [she] can find” as a preparation for transferring to a four-year school next year. She plans to pursue an actuarial career, possibly in the insurance industry. In addition to her passion for gardening, Alexis loves various artistic pursuits, from pencil drawing to painting to ceramics. Two years ago, she won a county-wide competition to highlight alcohol and drug awareness with a drawing depicting a girl with an umbrella walking from a substance-abuse rainstorm into the sunshine of freedom from drugs.

“That drawing was on billboards all over Chautauqua County for a year,” she said.

After graduating from high school, Alexis had hoped to pursue a degree and career in orthodontics. But after a year completing prerequisites at NOVA Southeastern University in Miami, she changed course.

“It was very expensive, and I realized my heart was in numbers,” she said.

Mike Stanley also changed course after initially pursuing a career in criminal justice at JCC.

“We did a lot of ride alongs with local police and spent time at the Jamestown police academy,” he said. “It was exciting at first but after a while, there was just too much drama.”

Mike also briefly concentrated on audio engineering, but realized his passion was in the outdoors. Despite working two jobs for the past several years to save for college, he says he gets outside to hike and enjoy nature as much as he can.

Working an extended season at Chautauqua, Mike also helps with food preparation at the popular Ashville General Store and does various odd jobs in the winter. He is shooting for college in September 2017, and has found a program that meets his needs at Eastern Washington University.

Maria Carolina Delahoy

Delahoy is in her fifth year at the Afterwords Café on Bestor Plaza. She comes back because she likes her bosses and her colleagues, and Chautauqua offers history, interesting architecture, the chance to meet new people and perhaps most of all, she said, “a sense of peacefulness.” Delahoy enjoys concert and opera performances on the grounds.

“I try to take advantage of as many opportunities as I can,” she said.

Delahoy came to the United States from Lima, Peru, at age 16 and graduated with her Jamestown High School class in the Amphitheater. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Western Connecticut State University and is now working toward her master’s degree in education at the University of Buffalo. She has a school principal’s certification from St. Bonaventure University. She teaches Spanish at Panama Central School during the academic year.

Married to a postal service letter carrier, Delahoy has three sons, all of whom have worked at the Institution. The eldest worked as a chef at the Athenaeum Hotel for a year while studying at Mercyhurst University in Erie; her middle and younger sons have worked with her at the Afterwords Café. Her youngest son, Thomas, is a student in Delahoy’s high school Spanish course.

She is looking forward to a family trip to Peru later this summer, her sons’ first visit to her native land.

“We’re going to Machu Picchu and the coast region,” she said. “I want my kids to have some idea of where I came from. It is tough to translate Peruvian culture to the U.S.”

Veronica Schuver

Schuver started working on the Institution’s gate staff three years ago, but switched to ticketing after one year and has since been promoted to a supervisory position. She has found she prefers ticketing.

“I guess what I like most about tickets is that when you take an order, it takes a bit of time to process. That provides an opportunity to get to know someone new,” she said. “And if there is a problem, there can be a bit of time to calm things down. When you’re working the vehicle gates, there’s just a quick interaction. And if there is a problem that develops, having the other person in a car increases the sense of distance somehow.”

Schuver was given a temporary supervisory position last summer when the ticketing manager fell ill, and earned the permanent job for this year.

As such, “I do a good deal of troubleshooting,” she said. “At various times, we have agents working at will call, parking, photo and regular ticket windows, plus the Visitors Center on the plaza, Amp Gazebo and outside Norton Hall and Bratton Theater. Lots of things can get snarled.”

A Lakewood, New York, native and rising senior at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, Schuver is the daughter of a chiropractor and middle school teacher.

“I’ve always been interested in health care,” she said.

Schuver is majoring in biology and plans to pursue a career in optometry. She’s looking at university programs from Oregon to Florida to Philadelphia. In the meantime, she enjoys playing the piano and violin, has been a competitive diver in high school and college, and is the vice-president of her college sorority.

Jeremy Warsitz

Warsitz is in his first year on the Amp crew. He is from Sinclairville, New York, and he performed on the Amp stage for eight years as a member of the All-County chorus, a group which performs every year two weeks before the summer season commences. Warsitz is a first-year student at Niagara University, majoring in theater performance with a minor in design and production (backstage). He has already acted in two college stage productions.

Warsitz’s position principally involves loading in and out for mainstage Amp performances. He said there is a difference of opinion among returning Amp crew members as to whether the loading and unloading is easier or tougher this year compared with previous years.

“Those who like the current setup say they like the fact that the Artist Village area is graded and paved now. Also, [Peters Bridge] was a very tight fit for some vehicles, and some had to offload further away from the Amp,” Warsitz said. “On the other hand, others don’t like the narrow opening for the trucks in the new perimeter fence. And some couldn’t find storage in the new site, particularly at first. However, all agree it is nice that there is no need to move stuff all the way up to the old choir loft on those old stairways.”

Large-act tour buses will now mostly hook up to electricity directly behind the Amp and not down on South Lake Drive by the Sports Club, Warsitz said.

Away from college and his busy summer job, Warsitz has been working with his father and grandfather to restore a black 1967 Camaro. The car was a graduation gift from his grandfather, and lacks only a starter to get back into service on the open road.

Ryleigh Palmer

Now in her fourth year at the Brick Walk Cafe on Bestor Plaza, Palmer was introduced early to the grounds when she accompanied her father to jobs here. Her dad is the owner of a local construction firm that is often visible on construction sites inside the Institution. Now a rising senior at SUNY Fredonia, Palmer has worked her way up from cashier to assistant manager at the cafe.

“Basically, all of us … assist the manager in whatever she needs,” Palmer said. “In my case, though, since I’ve had a lot of experience on the cash registers, I pay special attention to that, and I usually help verify payroll, plus other numbers and cash flow chores.”

Palmer was a biology major when she started in college, but under Fredonia’s individual studies program, she has crafted a major in the financial world of horse racing.

“I want to buy and sell race horses,” she said.

Growing up among horses as she frequented an aunt’s draught horse farm in Forestville, New York, Palmer said her school didn’t know what to do with her choice of career at first.

“We worked it out,” she said. Among her courses is game theory in the Department of Psychology.

Other than matters equine, Palmer loves her 2-year-old Siberian husky, Malakai.

“Horses are just big dogs anyhow, so this makes sense to me,” she said.

Lon Knappenberger

Knappenberger is accustomed to people being amazed at his story. A Main Gate attendant for 14 years, he works the 2 to 11 p.m. shift three days a week during the season. He is often asked to mentor newcomers to the gate staff, which comes easily because he is a science teacher at Westfield Academy and Central Schooll during the rest of the year. Knappenberger has been teaching at Westfield for 21 years, and is currently on a four-year appointment from the governor as a New York State master teacher. He is a member of three Western New York regional teacher leadership teams which meet each month. Knappenberger teaches anatomy, biotech and zoology courses at Westfield.

Knappenberger grew up in Mayville and got his Bachelor of Science in biology at SUNY Fredonia. But he wanted to be a primatologist, so he set off for Veracruz, Mexico, to observe a group of macaques on an island off the Mexican coast. Living in a two-man tent, he hiked to a boat to the island each day, observing mothers and their infants. Low-ranking primates, he found, invest more in their sons because of their potential to rise in the tribal hierarchy. High-ranking mothers, on the other hand, invest more attention in their daughters, because the daughters will rank just below them but still have high standing, and can thus become lifelong and effective allies.

After Mexico, he got a Master of Science and most of his Doctor of Philosophy coursework at the University of Buffalo. Then, there was more field research, this time on rhesus monkeys on an island off Puerto Rico. He studied mating behavior, discovering during 11-hour days that the monkey who won the prize was not usually the biggest or strongest. It was the medium-sized, sneaky ones who most often got to mate.

Knappenberger is married to a Cornell Cooperative Extension technician who studies grapes and hops in nearby Portland, New York.

The couple have five children, two of whom are enrolled in his high school classes. 

In quiet moments at the gate, Knappenberger may be annotating genes on his laptop computer, on grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

“This work is part of a massively larger effort to map genes in the search for cures for cancer and other illnesses with genetic components,” he said.

(Photos by Sarah Holm.)


The author John Ford

John Ford is in his ninth year with the Daily. He reports on general news, does feature reporting and writes the weekly Chautauqua Conversations column. A wire service reporter for United Press International prior to embarking on a career as a foreign service officer with the Department of State, he currently writes a regular column on American politics and foreign relations for one of the two principal daily newspapers in Nassau, Bahamas.