Another season at Chautauqua Institution is more than half gone. And as the humidity rises, so does the heat on Chautauqua’s hundreds of seasonal employees: housekeepers, gardeners, gate or ticket agents or chefs. Whatever their job, they work hard to keep Chautauqua’s summer season rolling along. Six of the best shared their stories with the Daily.
After two years on the Institution’s gardens staff, Edgar moved to housekeeping three years ago. He works the evening shift, partnering with Frank Kelsey on one of the two evening carts. This is a man immersed in this area: He grew up in a house on Hurst on the grounds, and attended high school when it was located across Route 394 from the Institution.
“I used to leave the grounds for school via an old pedestrian gate behind McKnight Hall,” he said. “I was a volunteer fireman here for 32 years. I have been exempt now, for physical reasons, for the last six years.”
Edgar and the other housekeepers report to supervisor Cindy Williams in her office in the maintenance garage virtually next door to his old high school. And Edgar lives on Route 394, not a mile away, across from the Elm Gate, with his 12-year-old black lab Sophie. In the basement of his house is his pride and joy, a complex of five model train layouts.
Edgar’s housekeeping duties keep him busy from April to October. During the off-season. Edgar looks after several houses on and off the grounds, taking care of leaf and snow removal on the properties. He also visits two of his siblings in California.
Earlier in his career, Edgar worked for 14 years for Jamestown Advanced Products, a local welding company.
“They made fire rings, picnic tables and utility boxes,” Edgar said. “I worked on an assembly line, installing the wiring on the utility boxes. For years we had a big contract for the boxes with the Siemens Corporation.”
Edgar and his family moved to Chautauqua in 1973. His father was president of M.H. Dietrich Co., a manufacturer of safes and furnaces. He is the only one of five children to remain in the area.
With his trademark mustache and customary perch on one of the Institution’s heavy riding mowers, McCann has become a familiar figure around the grounds. He is in his ninth year as a key member of the gardens and landscaping staff.
McCann and his wife first came to the grounds 16 years ago for a Smokey Robinson concert, “and we both fell in love with the place.”
McCann grew up in a company-owned community in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel works on the shores of Lake Erie just south of Buffalo. The community was called Bethlehem Park, and was part of what is now Lackawanna, New York.
“My father was the first president of United Steel Workers Local 2603, which was at the time the largest steelworkers union local in the country. Bethlehem Steel owned the houses, and some of the other facets of our life, too,” he said. “They paid a decent wage, and back in the ’40s and ’50s the company charged us $25 per month for our house.”
McCann’s entire family worked for Bethlehem Steel.
“When I was young, I worked at several jobs there myself,” he said. “But the company faltered in 1971 and I got laid off. There’s a big Ford motor plant just a bit to the east of the Bethlehem works, and I got a job there as a forklift operator. I worked there for 35 years. We had to maneuver the lift to handle loads of steel as big as a van. No serious accidents, but there were sure some moments.”
McCann was drafted during the Vietnam War and served with a buddy who lost an arm in Southeast Asia.
“I was in the 25th Infantry Division in the army,” he said. “We were in a combat and support role, based north of Saigon in the Củ Chi area in Tay Ninh province. It was a pretty hot zone when I was there. I remember times when the wind rush from incoming mortars would lift our tent flaps. Never hit us directly though.”
McCann lives in nearby Sheridan, New York, with his wife of 47 years, Jacky, a retired American Airlines employee.
Johnson is in his first year at Chautauqua, working as an attendant on the gates, mostly the South Gate. As Chautauquans get to know the attendants, they may bestow gifts of sodas or cookies as they return to the grounds, particularly after shopping expeditions to Wegmans.
“Yeah, that has happened,” Johnson said. “One family gave me a stack of cookies the other day.”
A graduate of Southwestern High School in Lakewood, Johnson now lives in Randolph for the summer. He is a rising sophomore at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s main campus in Daytona Beach.
Johnson said that when his father took him on a 30-minute helicopter ride seven years ago, he got hooked on aviation, and intends to make that his career.
The Johnson family has a Cessna 172 airplane, based at Dunkirk Airport. Johnson’s father is a retired sheriff’s deputy who now runs his own business. His father is a recreational pilot, and Johnson has had his own single engine pilot’s license for 15 months. He said his longest distance solo flight so far has been 380 miles; the longest duration solo flight has been four hours.
“They were different flights because of prevailing wind and weather conditions,” he said.
Johnson’s studies will lead to a bachelor of arts in aeronautical science. At the university, he expects to take around seven semesters of non-aeronautical science courses. His college studies will lead to his being able to fly bigger and faster aircraft.
He has become a member of the county’s Civil Air Patrol, which performs search and rescue for downed aircraft.
“Luckily, in this area, most of the calls we get are false alarms,” he said.
Most of Johnson’s flying experience locally has been out of Dunkirk or Jamestown airports.
Johnson is also an athlete.
“I wrestled for 13 years through high school,” he said. “I liked it because although you are on your own out on the mat, you’re still part of a team. I think in most sports, the body is a tool. In wrestling, it is a weapon.”
Williams, who lives in Salamanca, New York, is in her second year as a housekeeping supervisor at the Athenaeum Hotel. She leads a group of 12 housekeepers, all with a specific set of room assignments, and serves as a supervisor and inspector of their work. But she also fills in if anyone calls in sick or needs emergency leave.
Before Chautauqua, Williams worked for seven years at the Seneca Allegany Casino and Hotel. She was a housekeeper there for the first six years, then dealt cards at a blackjack table for a year. During the eight-week training period, Williams would work from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at her housekeeping shift, then attend blackjack training until 7 p.m.
“Most of the players were there to have fun,” she said. “They were OK. They’d tip decently. The high rollers, who would sometimes play for $1,000 per hand, were more mixed. My hours got to be a burden after a while.”
Williams has a 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son; she lost her own mother six years ago. Her father, who is 73, lives in Jamestown. Williams’ life has not been an easy one, but she remains cheerfully determined to succeed.
“I have my hopes and dreams,” she said.
They center now on a career in phlebotomy, the drawing of blood.
“I am going to take a 12-week course at vocational school after the season,” she said. “The classes are two nights a week, so I can continue to work here while I’m in class.”
For her, Chautauqua is “a place of peace. Sometimes I look up from my work and gaze for a moment at the lake. Those are peaceful, soothing moments.”
He’s executive chef at the President’s Cottage, the summer residence of President Tom and Jane Becker, but Schropshire’s name is misspelled on his chef’s tunic. Etched over the breast pocket is the name “Bon Shoppire.”
“They said they would redo it, but it’s become rather amusing,” Schropshire said.
The tunic misspelling has become an inside joke.
This is Schropshire’s first year at Chautauqua.
“Until three or four months ago, I had never heard of the place,” he said.
But his friend Brian Michelotti, who worked on the grounds two years ago, persuaded Shropshire to come up for the summer.
“I do understand the importance of cuisine at the President’s Cottage,” Schropshire said. “I organized a pre-season tasting for the Beckers at their request. There may have been 10 different dishes. They liked it.”
Schropshire has a lot of experience in the kitchen, and is “big on organization and structure.”
“I began this summer by writing out the basics of the first two months of menus,” he said. “Jane and I would agree on the protein, and I’d fill in around that, allowing for seasonal spontaneity in fruits, vegetables and the like. I think some chefs tend to overthink the menu; I am attracted to food colors that go well together, and I believe food that grows together in the wild or in the garden eats well together.”
Schropshire grew up in Charleston, West Virginia. His father was a salesman, his mother taught in school. Now 12 years out of high school, Schropshire tried college at Marshall University’s culinary arts program, but college was not for him.
“I have built up a lot of experience,” he said. “Especially with the publicity generated from TV food stars in the last five years or so, there’s a lot of work out there if you know what you are doing in the kitchen.”
Schropshire plans to travel to a warm place after the Chautauqua season.
“I may go to Central America, maybe New Mexico,” he said. “I have lived and worked in Central America before, learning enough Spanish in the kitchens where I worked. But Albuquerque/Santa Fe/Taos is full of opportunity, too. We’ll see. I’m kind of a food mercenary. I have no debt, no inhibiting family ties. I’ll see what’s next when it’s time.”
Despite the fact that the Jamestown High School graduation is annually held in the Amphitheater, very few JHS students work here. For instance, from a graduating class of 310, only a few JHS grads are working on the grounds this summer.
Molly Morse is one of them.
“JHS is a little further away from Chautauqua than the other high schools,” she said. “And the families there don’t have the money to spend time at Chautauqua. JHS is more of an inner city high school. Kids at JHS don’t get the same exposure to the Institution.”
Morse’s father is a pyrotechnician — “like it sounds, he really does manage fireworks,” she said — and her mother is an accountant with the county school system.
After spending last summer working as a parking lot attendant across Route 394 from the grounds, Morse was asked to fill in at the Ticket Office for some departing college students last August, and returned to ticketing this year.
“Mostly, people have a good idea what they want when they approach the ticket window and their transaction is smooth,” she said. “Once in a while a confused face will look blankly at you. The person really doesn’t know what they want. That can get complicated.”
A passionate artist, with pencil drawing a specialty, Morse will attend Jamestown Community College in the fall, then complete her bachelor’s degree in art education at SUNY Buffalo State. With degree in hand, she plans to seek an art education teaching position.
“I’d like to teach at the high school level,” she said.