Six Stars of Chautauqua

Mark Soderbergh has worked at Afterwords Cafe this season.

Chautauqua’s 2016 season has but one week to go. It is the last season of the venerable Amphitheater. It is the end of Tom Becker’s 32-year tenure at Chautauqua, the last 13 as the Institution’s president. Senior arts and other program leaders on the grounds are moving on. The humidity is rising and the drought is at least partly broken. And although large numbers of Chautauqua’s seasonal staff members have left to attend or return to college, many more remain to see out the season and do what will be necessary in the fall and in 2017. Here are six of their stories.

Jason Thorpe has worked for the Gardens and Landscaping department for three years and this is his first year working as a crew leader. Photo by Sarah Holm
Jason Thorpe has worked for the Gardens and Landscaping department for three years and this is his first year working as a crew leader. Photo by Sarah Holm

Drew Battle

Battle is likely to be one of the first staff members Athenaeum Hotel guests will meet as they arrive at the hotel. He is one of the valets who transfer luggage from arriving vehicles into the hotel and up to the guest rooms. Looking sharp in one of the hotel’s new  “valet” inscribed shirts, Battle moves with practiced ease around the main entrance and main lobby. Now operating in an environment of wealth and tradition, Battle knows a much different world.

“My mother died a few years ago,” he said. “My dad is not playing a big role in my life. I grew up in Salamanca, New York, but got adopted by a foster family and moved to Ocala, Florida, with my foster family. Ocala — a horse city with large horse farms and shopping malls.”

He was working as a groundskeeper there when he followed his sister’s advice to come up north and spend the summer working at the hotel.

“I started out at the Athenaeum in March, helping the housekeepers and doing what I could to help,” Battle said. “I got to work out front at the valet station when the hotel opened for guests.”

After the hotel closes for the season, Battle will likely return to Florida. He has already managed an online business serving as a kind of tertiary market for unwanted items from antique shops. “One guy had an entire barn full of junk he delivered to us in U-Haul trucks,” Battle said. “We tried to move it on eBay and sometimes Amazon.”

He had planned to attend barber school, but “it didn’t work out. I needed a car to get there, and I didn’t have one at the time.”

Cars will be part of his future, though.

“I want to get into the car reselling business,” Battle said. “I have a mechanic in Florida that I work with. We plan to buy used cars that dealers cannot sell off their lots, then fix them up and basically flip them. Twenty years from now, I want to be sitting in a house on a hill behind a computer, telling other people what to do.”

Emma Steele and Mark Soderbergh have worked at Afterwords Cafe this season.
Emma Steele and Mark Soderbergh have worked at Afterwords Cafe this season.

Emma Steele

Now in her second year at the Afterwords Café on Bestor Plaza, Steele is one of the café’s managers.

“Last year, I was just a worker,” she said.

Just graduated from high school in nearby Falconer, New York, this year, Steele knew about the café from older sisters who had worked there.

“I’m not really sure how they heard about it, but I have certainly enjoyed working there,” she said.

When she told her Falconer friends she was coming to Chautauqua, “they warned me to watch out for rude people,” Steele said. “But I have found most of our customers are really very nice. We get a lot of regulars in the café, and I have made friends with some of them. There are a few exceptions though. We always change a few menu items each year, but I think people know pretty much what to expect when they visit the café.”

Steele’s father is a heavy equipment operator and skilled laborer in the Jamestown Department of Public Works. Her mother is a registered nurse and administrator in a local assisted-living facility. Her sisters finished their education in Pittsburgh and Erie, Pennsylvania, respectively, and both still live there.

Steele is headed for Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania soon.

“It’s not a huge school, with about 10,000 students — more people than there are in the town,” she said. “I’m from a small town where I knew everyone. I wanted to go somewhere where I wouldn’t know everyone, but not to a huge university. Slippery Rock felt right.”

She plans to study either communications/public relations or health care.

“I’ll take different courses this year and then make my decision,” she said.

Steele may also play soccer or basketball in college, though not right at the start. She set four records at her high school for both scoring and assists in both sports.

“As a midfielder in soccer and point guard in basketball, the assists were always more important to me,” she said.

Rita Brown works at the information desk in the Visitor's Center. Photo by Sarah Holm
Rita Brown works at the information desk in the Visitor’s Center. Photo by Sarah Holm

Rita Brown

Rita Brown is an information specialist at the Main Gate Welcome Center, and has been welcoming and informing visitors to the Institution in that position for 22 years. Three days a week during the season, she is the one manning the window marked Information at the Main Gate. But there’s much more to her Chautauqua story.

It starts in summer 1964 when this Lakewood, New York, native moved with her husband, Rich, into what was then called the Athletic Club, a three-story structure housing the staff of Boys’ and Girls’ Club. Rich had been hired as waterfront director of the club.

“The counselors lived on the third floor,” Brown said. “My husband and I and some other administrators were on the second floor. There was a ceramics studio on the ground floor — along with a bowling alley. The building was not perfectly structurally sound nor was there much if any noise insulation in the floors. So we’d sometimes get leaks from upstairs or the rumbling of the bowling from downstairs.”

When the current Beeson Youth Center replaced the Athletic Club, “it was certainly an upgrade,” Brown said.

While her husband directed waterfront activities at Club until 1993, Brown worked as an administrative assistant supporting Syracuse University graduate programs then offered at Chautauqua and later helped teach in a high school pre-college program developed by the Institution. When the first of her two children was born in 1972, Brown stopped working to look after them. After leaving Club, her husband worked for many years at the Chautauqua Golf Club across Route 394.

“I guess our kids were as immersed in Club as they could be,” Brown said.

Her son now lives in Boston and a daughter lives in the Norfolk, Virginia, area.

“I’m able to spend some quality time with the kids and my five grandchildren,” Brown said. “I take the families to Mexico on my grandkids’ respective winter school breaks. This coming winter we’re going to Puerto Vallarta and Cancun, Mexico. And I’m a regular at my book club in Lakewood.”   

Nicole Roggie is an employee working at the Athenaeum Hotel for the season. Photo by Eslah Attar
Nicole Roggie is an employee working at the Athenaeum Hotel for the season. Photo by Eslah Attar

Nicole Roggie

Roggie was introduced to the Athenaeum Hotel last year when a friend invited her to share one the Heirloom Restaurant’s pre-season soft opening meals.

“I liked it a lot,” she said.

She came back this summer, working as a server in the restaurant.

“Most of the customers are very nice,” she said. “I was surprised at the number of patrons who seemed genuinely curious about my story.”

Roggie sometimes stops by the Amp after completing her dinner shift to see what’s happening.

“The Avett Brothers were playing on my birthday,” she said. “That was special.”

Her French surname hints at her paternal ancestry. Roggie said her father’s family immigrated to the far-upstate Watertown, New York, area from Alsace–Lorraine, the border region whose name is familiar to all students of diplomatic history as an area long disputed by France and Germany. The family, Roggie said, fled partly due to religious concerns. During a recent period of study abroad in Switzerland, Roggie said she drove through Alsace-Lorraine.

“It does look an awful lot like this part of Western New York,” she said.

Her father is an agribusiness specialist who works for a grape farmers cooperative associated based around Westfield. Her mom is at home with three younger siblings, and the family lives in Northeast, Pennsylvania. Roggie attended Messiah College in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

“It’s a religious school,” she said. “I’d say there is a mix of traditions there, including Anabaptist and pietist. There is an emphasis on devotional practices rather than formal religious traditions.”

In college, Roggie was active on the cross-country team and ran the mile and 800-meter races for the track squad.

Roggie aims to be an early-childhood teacher and has experience working with 2- and 3-year olds. She will be substituting this fall in the Erie public school system, mostly in elementary schools but also in middle schools.

“I do love little kids,” she said. “I might move away from this area for a while to see what’s out there before settling down. But when I have children, I expect that I will move back here. This area is my home.”

Emma Steele and Mark Soderbergh have worked at Afterwords Cafe this season.
Emma Steele and Mark Soderbergh have worked at Afterwords Cafe this season.

Mark Soderberg

Now in his fourth year at the Afterwords Café on Bestor Plaza, Soderberg is a recent graduate of SUNY Fredonia. He was a math education major, certified as a high school math teacher. After the Chautauqua season ends, he will head to New York City as a student teacher. Already assigned housing in the West Bronx through a state program, he will divide his year between teaching pre-calculus at the magnet Vanguard School at 63rd Street and First Avenue in Manhattan and serving as an eighth-grade math instructor at a middle school in Parkchester, East Bronx.

“I applied specifically for New York City,” Soderberg said. “I love the city.”

Other potential places to continue his teaching career include Pittsburgh, where he and his family often go to see their beloved Cubs play against the home team, and Columbus, where his older brother studied accounting at Ohio State University and now practices as a CPA.

Familiar with Chautauqua from participating in All-County a cappella singing competitions in the Amphitheater, Soderberg started at the café washing dishes and doing odd jobs.

“I do what I am told to do, and you generally only have to tell me once what I should do,” he said. “After that, I just do it. I became a manager in my second year and got the key to open and close the café. I built on that responsibility.”

Soderberg is now the second in command to café manager Anne Eklund.

“I love to help people,” he said. “I think I am patient with others and want to help them to succeed. If you bring me a problem, I’m all about trying to assist you in solving it.”

Solving problems is a key to mathematics.

“I always loved numbers,” Soderberg said. “They make sense to me. In college, I’d get a nine-page proof to solve, and it was rarely a problem. If you put logic to math, it can become pretty easy.”

Another problem for some is easy for Soderberg: “I’m a pretty decent juggler,” he said.

Mark Soderbergh has worked at Afterwords Cafe this season.
Mark Soderbergh has worked at Afterwords Cafe this season.

Jason Thorpe

As a crew leader in his third year working for the gardens and landscapes department at the Institution, Thorpe started work in early April and will remain on the job until the end of November. He was hired by former grounds, gardens and landscapes manager Ryan Kiblin after answering an ad the Jamestown Post-Journal, and has found that “I love this job much more than I thought I would. Working eight months as I do, I get the satisfaction of often seeing the finished product of what I helped to begin months earlier.”

Thorpe said the whole gardens and landscapes crew has faced big challenges this summer, ranging from a persistent drought to reduced crew numbers to the extra plantings and other work associated with the Amp renewal project.

“We do different stuff every day, with a crew size ranging from two to eight,” Thorpe said. “It depends on whether we’re watering, mulching, weeding or mowing and how big the area is.”

Thorpe lives in Jamestown now but has spent most of his life in Sheffield, Pennsylvania, on the northern edge of the Allegheny National Forest, and Warren, Pennsylvania, where he worked in a factory.

“We made rifle components for the military,” he said. “Mostly it was chip loaders for the M-16 rifle, but we also made springs to permit loading full magazines in civilian competition rifles. It was pretty specialized work.”

His graduating class at Sheffield High School numbered 58.

Now 29 years old, Thorpe enrolled at Penn State University as a chemistry major after graduating from high school.

“I thought about chemical engineering or research, but I decided I didn’t want to get stuck in a lab,” he said.

He switched to an English major, but left school after his sophomore year and has not yet returned.

“If I go back to school, I want to be sure it supports what I want to do,” he said.

Right now, that would be astrophysics, but he isn’t ready to make the commitment just yet.

“I am a big astronomy buff,” he said. “I love stargazing. It was frustrating when we could observe the Perseid meteor shower recently and it seemed that the night sky had been so clear for weeks. Then it just had to rain and cloud over just as we could have seen the best display in years.”


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.