Seven stars of Chautauqua

The amazing 2017 season is entering its final week. In recent years, the Institution has been aggressively competing for program attention in Chautauqua’s Week Nine, with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center last year and now, a food festival this year. This week should provide sustenance for an off-season of preparation for new president Michael E. Hill’s first signature program in 2018. Anticipation is already high.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Chautauqua’s seasonal employees are ensuring that operations on the grounds continue to support the Institution’s ambitious program. Some have already departed for the beginning of their academic year, but hundreds remain and will be here long after the final chords of “Largo” fade into next Sunday night. Here are seven of their stories.

Jessica and Jamie Wilcox

Twin sisters Jess and Jamie Wilcox sit in a bellhop on Saturday, August 12. Both work in the Athenaeum Hotel’s valet services. OLIVIA SUN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

These 19-year-old twins have made a bit of history in their first year at the Institution this summer. Depending on your precise definition of “valet,” they are either the first or second women valets in the long history of the Athenaeum Hotel. Jessica, who is one minute older than her sister Jamie, said the twins have heard varying accounts of the activities of the woman bellhop who preceded them.

“I understand she worked more inside the hotel,” Jessica said. “She might not have been out there hefting the bags out of guests’ cars like we have done.”

“Whatever,” Jamie said. “We are in a sufficiently unusual position as female valets that we have attracted interest and comment. Some older guests have said that ‘it feels wrong for women to be toting the bags.’ A few have declared they would feel better if our male colleagues carried their luggage. Many have cautioned us that ‘my bag is really heavy.’ ”

“The men don’t get those comments,” she added.

On the other hand, several guests of both genders have whispered “Go, girl!” to the twins as they went about their work. There were even offers of temporary adoption.

“One lady wanted us to regard her as our grandmother,” Jessica said.

The Wilcoxes agreed it had been a fine summer, and they are pretty sure they have gotten higher average tips than their male counterparts, although the tips are pooled.

One of those male counterparts has been older brother Jacob Wilcox, who valeted at the hotel until recently returning to Alfred University, where he is a rising senior and offensive lineman on the school’s football team. Jamie and Jessica are rising sophomores at Alfred. Jamie is pursuing a degree in personal health and fitness, with a specialty in diabetes mitigation.

“My grandmother, aunt and uncle all suffered from adult-onset diabetes, and it sparked my interest,” she said. “I’m also doing a marketing minor and taking coaching courses.”

Jamie is hoping for a career as a personal trainer eventually, but might opt for graduate school in nutrition before beginning her career.

“I’ve got a lot of plans,” she said, “and it is also early in my college career.”

Jessica is planning on a psychology major, with a potential specialty in art therapy.

“I do drawing myself, particularly in pastels,” she said, “and I have done an internship at Roswell Park in Buffalo for cancer patients. It got me very interested in the work they do, particularly involving older patients.”

The twins have been active in sports, both at Pine Valley Central School in South Dayton and at college. Jamie plays guard on her college basketball team; Jessica prefers softball. Jessica said it’s not hard to tell them apart.

“I’ve stayed a natural dirty blonde,” she said.

Jamie said she has experimented with different hair colors over the years, but has settled on dark.

“It’s me,” she said.

Kim Pukay

Kim Pukay, a member of the Amp crew, poses for a portrait in the Amphitheater on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. CAM BUKER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In another seasonal crew involving lots of heavy lifting, Pukay is the lone woman on the Amp crew that sets up the myriad shows in the Amphitheater.

“We also help out a lot loading in gear for the big shows on Fridays and occasionally on other nights,” she said.

Although one of the many improvements built into the new Amp is much greater storage for orchestra instruments, Pukay said there was still a need for two to three round trips from the orchestra’s auxiliary storage space at Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall.

“I’m well aware I’m the only female on our Amp crew,” Pukay said, “I want to pull my weight, so I don’t play the female card. Still, there are times I just don’t have the strength for some of the heavy road cases we load in for shows. I’m not embarrassed to ask for help if I need it.”

Pukay is from Springville, New York, in the Route 219 vacation region. Her father works remotely for an internet business based in India and is preparing to help the firm launch an expanded U.S. business arm. She is living in a lakeside cottage in Bemus Point rented from family friends this summer.

“I haven’t even attended a single concert on the floating stage in Bemus,” she said. “By the time I get home from work, I’m usually done for the day.”

In her first year at the Institution, Pukay has been working six days a week, as is the norm for her crew. A business management and theater design and production major in her second year at Niagara University, she was referred for the job by a school friend who also works on the grounds.

“Ultimately, I would like to be a lighting designer for a big entertainment venue like the Amp,” she said. “I could see myself in the light booth in the new Amp, next to our sound booth, calling the shots.”

Julie Kelsey

Julie Kelsey, shift manager at The Brick Walk Cafe, poses for a portrait on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. CAM BUKER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Kelsey is now in her third year at the Brick Walk Cafe. After two years working as a cashier, she sought and received a promotion this summer to the position of shift manager.

“We generally have about a dozen employees on an eight-hour shift,” she said. “The pace of work varies between crazy at certain times and quiet at others. You have to be ready for anything.”

Like many of her seasonal colleagues, Kelsey had visited the Institution rarely, if at all, prior to starting work here.

“I did take a photography class over across the street at Hultquist (Center) through Special Studies one year, but that was it,” she said. “I never set foot inside the gates before that or after until I started here at the cafe.”

A 2014 graduate of Mercyhurst University’s Northeast branch in criminal science, Kelsey is pointing to a future career analyzing crime scene evidence in a law enforcement lab. Meantime, she is living in Mayville with her husband and 18-month old son, Hunter. This summer, her husband is assisting with general maintenance work at the Chautauqua Golf Club.

Kelsey met her husband at Chautauqua Lake Central School in Mayville.

“I guess I made the first move,” she said with a grin. “He just had this military bearing and a cute buzz cut.”

The couple loves to attend Comicon in Toronto.

“We dress up in costume,” she said. “I generally go as Poison Ivy, and he goes as some kind of Afro Samurai. His buzz cut grows out into a wild Afro look.”

In the off-season, Kelsey assists her father in an auto repair and detailing business.

“He does the mechanical work, and I do everything on the body of the car,” she said. “That ranges from purely cosmetic stuff to welding on spoilers.”

At home, in addition to Hunter, there are two dogs (her husband’s preference) and three cats (hers). A couple of the cats came from a litter of six kittens Kelsey and a friend found by the side of the road not so long ago.

“Someone had just abandoned them in a box,” she said. “We found homes for all of them.”

Duane ‘Dewey’ Carlson

Dewey Carlson, Chautauqua gardening and landscaping employee, sits by a flower bed on Tuesday, August 15. Carlson has worked in the department for three years. OLIVIA SUN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Thoroughly local and Swedish, Carlson was born and raised in Jamestown, attended Jamestown Community College and SUNY Fredonia, and has stayed in the area. He currently lives in nearby West Ellicott. He is in his fourth year as a member of the Institution’s gardens staff.

After college, Carlson embarked on a career as a tool design engineer. He started out at the Blackstone Corporation, a local firm that began by fabricating wooden wash tubs and evolved to making washing machines and automobile radiators. Carlson designed tools that enabled the radiators to work properly.

“Not to get too technical,” he said, “but there are very close tolerances on car radiators. The baking process involved in their manufacture could cause shrinkage in certain components, so the design work was highly precise.”

Carlson worked for Blackstone for 12 years, until it was sold to a French multinational corporation in 1992.

“(Local industrialist, entrepreneur and philanthropist) Reg Lenna had been the principal stockholder in Blackstone,” Carlson said, “and when he sold the company, several of us left to work for Ecko Tool, another firm in the industry. I stayed there until it was shut down in 2009.”

After another few years in the same business at EMC Fintech, he was ready to retire and try something new. He joined the Institution’s gardens staff.

Much of Carlson’s work planting and maintaining the Institution’s extensive gardens involves bending, squatting and generally hunching down, so “I take along a small thickish mat that protects my knees,” he said. His work is similar in form but not in scope to what any home gardener does.

“I collect the weeds in an empty drywall bucket, just like I do at home,” he said.

A cancer survivor, Carlson has gotten involved in following cancer research, church support groups and fundraising efforts to combat and find a cure for the disease. When he faced his own cancer surgery, Carlson said his teammates on the gardens crew raised $200 to support his expenses.

“That meant so much to me,” he said.

George Crandall

George Crandall stands outside his shop by the Turner bus gate on Tuesday, August 15. Crandall frequently repairs benches on the grounds, which have a typical lifespan of two to three years. OLIVIA SUN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the off-season of 2000 to 2001, Institution housekeepers making their rounds reported a fire in the old Amphitheater. Grounds and maintenance staff member George Crandall was one of the first on the scene to respond.

“When we got the call, we raced down there,” Crandall recalled. “We found a fire burning in the attic, likely caused when a light fixture had been knocked over. The fire was starting to burn through the ceiling. We managed to almost put it out with fire extinguishers and kept it from spreading until the fire department arrived.”

Most days don’t bring that same level of excitement for Crandall and his colleagues on the Buildings and Grounds department’s trades crew, but he sees plenty of variety in his work.

“There are nine of us altogether,” he said. “We do plumbing, electrical, carpentry, painting, maintenance of communications wires for voice and internet, and fire alarm installation and maintenance for the Institution’s properties.”

Crandall does a lot of the winterizing for the 90-plus Institution buildings that are not heated.

A Westfield Academy and Central School graduate and longtime Westfield resident, Crandall worked in a salvage yard and in the local vineyards for a few years before he started with the Institution over 18 years ago. After a period working on the Buildings and Grounds staff, he joined a newly formed trades crew under Buildings and Grounds  Manager Jack Munella.

“I guess you could call me a jack of all trades,” Crandall said. “We all know enough about different trades to tackle most jobs. It does help to know a little bit about a lot of things.”

Crandall lives with his wife and three children in a 1940s house between the railroad tracks and I-90 in Westfield. Given his profession, it comes as no surprise that he is constantly at work on various home improvement projects. Getting his home up to snuff is, he said, “still a work in progress. We do what needs to be done, just like here, and beyond that, whatever time and money allow.”

Tessa Lisanti 

Welcome gate staff member Tessa Lissanti poses for a portrait in The Welcome Center on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017. Lissanti will be attending Stanford University starting in the fall. CAM BUKER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

It is easy to conclude that quality education is highly valued in Tessa Lisanti’s family. She said her mother, a chemical engineer, and her businessman father met in graduate school at Stanford University. An older brother is a software engineer in San Francisco. And Lisanti is headed for Stanford herself this fall, to major in computer science. She is now on the home stretch of her first year at the Institution’s Ticket Office at the Main Gate.

While this is her first year in ticketing, she is very familiar with Chautauqua. She has been coming here since birth, but “we really had no particular family connection to Chautauqua,” she said.

“My mother read a story about it in the Pittsburgh newspaper, and she was intrigued,” she said.  “We started coming here. For many years, we had a house off Route 394 near the Art Loft, and bought a place on the grounds a couple of years ago.”

Lisanti stuck with Boys’ and Girls’ Club through Group 8 but “that was enough,” she said. “Club isn’t for everyone every year.”

A graduate of Pittsburgh’s Sewickley Academy, she spent last summer in an intensive six-week course in computer programming at Carnegie Mellon University. But in 2015, she worked both as a hostess at the Heirloom Restaurant in the Athenaeum Hotel and at Food for Thought at the St. Elmo, where she did everything from food preparation to cashier to cleanup. Her twin sister, headed for Colorado College in the fall, has worked this summer as a counselor at Club.

In the Ticket Office, Lisanti often finds herself in a problem-solving mode.

“It’s good that I have a fair amount of background in Chautauqua because we are asked a lot of questions at the ticket window,” she said. “Most of our customers are patient and kind. Maybe 5 percent get a little rude or testy with us. But part of our job is to put them at ease and make their Chautauqua stay as pleasant as possible.”

Competent on the violin and the guitar, Lisanti particularly enjoys improvising adaptations of songs she already knows on her guitar. She said she also has a strong interest in 20th-century American history, especially World War II and the civil rights movement. She may blaze some trails herself one day.

“Women in computer science represent a distinct minority. I’d like to be able to do something to change that,” she said.

Tags : CommunityDuane CarlsonGeorge CrandallJamie WilcoxJessica WilcoxJulie KelseyKim PukaySeven StarsTessa Lisanti

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.