Six stars of Chautauqua

The 2017 season of transition has been launched. Chautauqua Institution has a new president, its 18th, in Michael E. Hill. The Institution has its brand new Amphitheater. New senior staff members occupy key positions in the Colonnade, bringing with them plenty of ideas and energy. More new appointments for the future have already been announced.

Offering vital support to all are Chautauqua’s hundreds of seasonal employees. They make a good impression on visitors at the gates to the Institution, ensure that the grounds are perpetually blooming and beautiful, and take care of Athenaeum Hotel guests. Here are six of their stories.

Mark Teets

Mark Teets, left, and Amy Smith, right, pose for a portrait on Tuesday, June, 27 2017. Teets and Smith are gardeners at Chautauqua Institution. CAM BUKER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In his second season working for Gardens and Landscapes and his first as a crew leader, Teets is no stranger to the Institution. He has lived in Dewittville for 25 years and spent a year working in the Chautauqua Bookstore around 15 years ago. In addition to his responsibilities working in Chautauqua’s gardens, he serves as minister for the Community Bible Church in Mayville and is a frequent substitute teacher at Chautauqua Lake Central School, also in Mayville.

Teets and his wife moved to Dewittville to assume the ministry at the Christian and Missionary Alliance church there. Nine years later, he had acquired an old grange building in Mayville and founded the nondenominational church he presently leads.

“We have a small but close and loyal congregation,” he said. “It is an honor to minister to such devoted parishioners.”

Teets grew up in Bucyrus, Ohio, home to heavy equipment and auto parts manufacturing. He earned a bachelor’s in Bible theology at Toccoa Falls College in Toccoa, Georgia, in the rolling hills north of Atlanta. His college education was interrupted by a three-year stretch in the U.S. Army as a military policeman, serving first at Fort McClellan in Alabama, where the Military Police School was located, and later at Fort Greely in Delta Junction, Alaska, where he said the Army tests missiles and tanks in cold weather.

“They chose well,” Teets said. “The weather was really, breathtakingly, cold.”

After the Army, he returned home to Bucyrus, where he met his wife.

“I was asked to mentor a young man who had a difficult discharge from the Army,” Teets said. “When I first met him, he stormed out of the house. His sister did not. She has been my wife for 35 years.”

Teets has since ministered at a rescue mission in Lima, Ohio; a Christian Missionary Alliance church in Pikeville, Kentucky; and the church in Dewittville. The couple has three kids scattered around the country and is expecting their first grandchild any day now.

Teets said his wandering days are over.

“I love my job here at the Institution, and have found peace also in other phases of my life,” he said. “This is home now.”

Amy Smith

This is Smith’s fourth year on the Gardens and Landscapes crew and her first as a crew leader. Her duties vary from week to week, as does the composition of her crew, per the direction of Supervisor of Gardens and Landscapes Betsy Burgeson.

“It can be planting annuals, mulching or maintenance,” she said. “And sometimes, we get storms that cause everything to change overnight.”

This week, Smith’s crew worked maintenance around the grounds.

When she enrolled at Jamestown Community College in 2015, Smith thought she was headed for a career in social work. Her associate’s degree from JCC was in social science.

“I have had a change of heart,” she said. “Next spring, when I enroll at SUNY Fredonia, I’m planning to major in environmental and earth science.”

While there was no particular event that caused her to alter her plans, she said her work at the Institution had made her more aware of the environment.

Smith was born in Sumter, South Carolina, but moved to Mayville when her parents divorced and her mother married her stepfather, who is from this area. She has been living at home to save money, but is moving to Jamestown shortly, and when the new academic year starts, she will move again to live close to college in Fredonia.

A graduate of Chautauqua Lake Central School, Smith said she has played the guitar since middle school, and has taken up the piano more recently.

“And I’m a real outdoors type,” she said. “I love camping and generally enjoying the Allegheny River over in Pennsylvania. It is truly beautiful.”

Smith got her start at the Institution five years ago as a member of the Amphitheater cleaning crew.

“We really cleaned that place before the morning worship,” she said. “It was hard work, especially after a rainstorm, but we always finished on time.”

Now she loves the gardens staff, where morale is usually very high.

“I really like the environment we’re in,” Smith said. “We’re all mutually supportive. It’s amazing to me how many different lifestyles are represented in our crews, yet we all work well with each other. It’s fun to come to work.”

Gedminas Jukius (aka “G”)

Gediminas Juknius poses for a portrait at Athenaeum Hotel on Tuesday, June 27, 2017. PAULA OSPINA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

His colleagues and bosses at the Athenaeum Hotel quickly named him G. This 25-year-old Lithuanian is in his third summer in the U.S. under a work and travel exchange program that has supplied many hotel seasonal employees in recent years. Jukius spent his first summer in Reno, Nevada, working in a casino call center. Last year he worked at the Lakeview on the curve of Route 394 in Mayville. This year, he is a server in the Heirloom Restaurant at the hotel.

Jukius is a poster boy for the European Union and its easy movement and exchange among member nations. Born in Klaipeda, the third-largest city in Lithuania, Jukius is the youngest son of a retired mechanical engineer and an accountant. Unlike his two elder brothers who followed their father into mechanical engineering, Jukius did his undergraduate work in electrical engineering, including a junior year abroad at a university in Prague, Czech Republic. While there, he began a relationship with an American woman, which partly prompted his interest in subsequent work in the U.S.

In graduate school, Jukius changed course to engineering and management, and under a joint degree program approved by the EU, he studied in Slovenia, Georgia and Lithuania. During breaks in his academic career, he has worked for the German corporation Siemens in Lithuania. But he has financed his extensive travels throughout Europe and the U.S. with online programming: working as an independent contractor, he constructs websites and blogs for clients who want to avoid paying high hourly rates for the work. Through websites that act as middlemen for a fee, he sends clients proposals to get their business.

“It’s part of the world economy now,” Jukius said. “I recently wrote script for a database. Online programming has led to new jobs all around the world.”

Jukius loves the variety and quality of cultural events at the Institution.

“I especially love the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra,” he said. “I was fortunate to hear several concerts when I was in the area last summer, and I have to say, you have a superb orchestra here. I have heard orchestras in many European capitals including Berlin, and I can honestly say you have a good one.”

Peter Cohen

Peter Cohen, of Chautauqua ticket management staff, poses by his golf cart on Wed, Jun. 28, 2017. OLIVIA SUN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Cohen sits in the shade in a Ticket Office golf cart on Bryant overlooking the temporarily grassed-over community garden and the stark concrete walls of the aeration ponds of the new sewer plant at the south end of the grounds.

“It’s one of my favorite places on the grounds,” Cohen said. “Just kidding.”

The outgoing and jocular Cohen has become a familiar figure on the grounds in his seven seasons at Chautauqua. Now the seasonal assistant manager of ticketing for the Institution, he pulled his first shift at the Main Gate in 2011. By that autumn, he was also working at the Smith Memorial Library, where he continued until early last year. He moved over from the gates to ticketing in 2013.

Cohen has been a year-round resident of neighboring Wahmeda since 2009, where he lives with his partner Donna Dolson.

“Donna and I actually met at Boston University when we were undergraduates there,” he said. “We were in the orchestra together.”

Dolson has been a member of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the French horn section for 30 years. Cohen plays stand-up and electric bass. The two found each other again in connection with a mutual friend’s 50th birthday party in 2004.

“Chautauqua actually reminds me of Marblehead, Massachusetts, where I grew up,” Cohen said.

Cohen was a rolling stone after college.

“I was a music major in college,” he said. “At that time, that meant only classical music. But I have played in big bands on cruise ships and with traveling rock ’n’ roll bands.”

In the pre-cable TV era, Cohen also owned and managed video stores in Acton, Massachusetts, and in Martha’s Vineyard. For a number of years, he and his partners bought older, run-down houses and rehabilitated them for resale.

Chautauqua is now home.

“We love it here,” he said.

Ashleigh Hartley

Ashleigh Hartley, of Chautauqua welcome gate staff, poses at the Hall of Philosophy on Wed, Jun. 28, 2017. OLIVIA SUN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Ice cream has been a fixture in Hartley’s life recently. When she started working at the Institution four years ago, she was one of the personable and patient young people serving ice cream at the Brick Walk Cafe to long lines of kids with their parents and grandparents. Now she has graduated to working at the Main Gate, but she lives close to the little ice cream hut just off County Route 33 run by Stedman Corners Cafe.

“I have never gotten tired of ice cream,” Hartley said.

This Chautauqua Lake Central School graduate is taking two gap years after high school. She and her friend Sarah have just finished writing a book, a “low-key fantasy” about a young boy who suffers from survivor’s guilt after the untimely death of his friend.

“The boy has trouble at school, and begins to suspect his troubles are linked to a new kid who moves in across the street,” Hartley said.

Hartley’s book is titled Never Tell an Angel, and she and Sarah have a publishing and limited publicity contract with an online publisher on Staten Island for editorial, page and cover design work. The book runs 260 pages and should be available online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble online soon.

“I’m not sure about college at this point,” Hartley said. “I’ve got some other interests. This fall, after the Chautauqua season, I want to get more involved in music and take acting classes in Buffalo.”

Hartley plays piano and guitar. With her passionate interests in writing, acting and music, she has found her interactions on the gates with Chautauquans necessarily brief but often stimulating.

“I have met a lot of cool people here,” she said. “In fact, I met a girl last summer who helped me get in touch with my online publisher.”

Dat Le

Dat Le poses for a portrait at Athenaeum Hotel on Tuesday, June 27, 2017. PAULA OSPINA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Le is a rising senior at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, majoring in hospitality management. This is his first season at Chautauqua.

Le’s twin brother is studying computer science at Bennington College in Vermont. Both brothers finished high school at a language-intensive school in Hanoi, Vietnam, where Le learned his English with a minor in Chinese. Le took the SAT in high school, got accepted at Mercyhurst, got a scholarship and got his U.S. education visa.

“I was drawn to the university’s hospitality program,” Le said.

After he graduates next spring, he will have three months to get a job offer under the U.S. government’s Optional Practical Training program. After one year in that program, he’ll need to get a regular work visa to remain in the country. Graduate studies at an American university is also a possibility.

“I’ll see what that looks like in a year or two,” Le said.

His father is a professor at Vietnam’s national university, teaching environmental science. His mother runs a small business manufacturing clothes.

“My parents feel that the U.S. offers diversity and a standard of living that they feel would benefit me and my brother,” Le said.

His father has visited America several times in connection with his academic work; his mother will visit for the first time next spring for her sons’ university commencements.

Le is amazed by Chautauqua.

“It’s a beautiful, stunning place,” he said. “I love the academic lifestyle here. The variety of music and lectures is astounding. I very much look forward to attending as many events as my schedule permits this summer.”

Le said he encountered religion for the first time here.

“I normally read a lot of history, but I’m interested in and reading about religion now, too,” Le said. “What a stimulating place this is.”

Tags : Athenaeum Hotelchautauqua institutionGardens and Landscape DepartmentJohn FordMain GateSeasonal EmployeesWelcome Center

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.