5 O’clock Coffee Talk

It’s happy hour! What are we doing drinking coffee? It’s the kind of Friday night that calls for a martini – straight up.

I take my usual seat at the Lobby Lounge bar, looking around at the flurry of activity as hotel guests arrive for the weekend and the suits and gowns sashay in for their festivities. Tom takes the seat next to me, sipping a clear mug of caffeinated bliss, just like me. He’s another regular, but one that I haven’t yet met. Based on the way the staff flock to him to exchange pleasantries and jokes,  I presume Tom is a guy I’d like to get to know.photo

The new law-student bartender is reciting a litany of her favorite professors and Tom chimes in when he has a tidbit of advice. He went to Notre Dame Law School and graduated in 1987, but has been practicing law in Milwaukee and coming to the Pfister ever since.

Poshly dressed in a clean-pressed gray suit and contemporary tortoise shell frames that he repeatedly takes on and off his face, Tom is a criminal defense attorney. His hair, just a shade lighter than his suit, is neatly combed back. He’s delaying a congested highway drive back to Chicago, so he stays a little longer to chat with me. Oh great, since he’s been around for so long, maybe he’ll have an idea for a great story, I think to myself.

He asks what I do for a living and I begin to tell him about my position as the Pfister’s writer in residence and about my work with nonprofits. We find common ground when talking about the nuances and legal implications of grant writing.

Wait, what is happening? I am a turning into a character in my own story. He’s grilling me like a burger at a Memorial Day cookout. Or, well, like a criminal defense attorney. And I just keep slinging back answers, retracing my twenties with this man I don’t even know, but seems like an old pal. I am talking fast, two-cups of coffee fast. I took him from my life in college in Iowa City to my first job in Chicago, and then throughout the jobs and apartments in Milwaukee that I’ve occupied.

I tell other people’s stories, I am not here to tell mine! Somehow we’ve reversed roles and Tom is the storyteller tonight. He extracted biographical information from me that I never intended to share. Rather than reciprocate, the only information Tom shared was that he’s looking forward to retirement in Wisconsin’s north woods. “Maybe I’ll get a job at Wal-Mart or something. I am looking for an  opportunity with absolutely no fiduciary obligation,” he confesses.

And just as quickly as he arrived, he set off into the traffic to head home to Chicago. I didn’t quite get why he’s living in Chicago now  so I suppose his story will remain untold – for now.

He must be an amazing cross examiner.

 

Carla and Tommy

“I made a song!” she declared with a Christmas-morning smile. Dan invited her over to the piano in the lobby to play a few notes. “He knows that Jeff always plays ‘Summertime’ for me, because that’s the song my mother used to sing to me when I was a baby girl,” Carla explained as a juicy tear welled up in her coffee-colored eye. Now, her adoring husband Tommy calls her baby girl.

Carla and Tommy Shircel have one tradition – they celebrate their anniversary every year at the Pfister Hotel.

“Dan asked me to pick the first three notes and from there, he taught me how to compose a song. It’s called ‘Carla’s Song.'” She continued to boast about her song like she had just earned an A on a term paper.

Carla and Dan, the piano man
Carla and Dan, the piano man

Carla and Tommy met in 1994 and wanted to get married at the Pfister on April Fool’s day, but had to settle for March 31.

“I started coming here when I was this big,” Carla puts her hand about two feet from the ground, which translates to about four years old. “This has been my home-away-from-home. We used to sit here in the lobby and watch the Circus Parade,” she recalls.

Her Aunt Rosy was a catering manager and after all these years, she still works at the Pfister in the engineering department.

Carla and Tommy’s wedding ceremony, back in 1995, was held in one of the suites and the reception continued in the Cafe Rouge before they left directly for Jamaica. Tommy had just started a new job with Rockwell Automation and because he didn’t have much vacation time, he went into work the morning of his wedding to afford them one extra day on their honeymoon.

“There is so much history and culture here. It feels you’re walking into your grandma’s big mansion, doesn’t it?” insists Carla. “Every bride has posed on that marble staircase, I know I did!”

Walking in the front door is Carla’s favorite view of the Pfister. As a devout Italian, she particularity loves all of the Italian frescoes. Every year they return to the Pfister to celebrate and they always pick a new room to stay in. Carla and Tommy had dozens of funny stories about run-ins with celebrities, maids, Charlie Pfister’s ghost, and more. They finished each other’s sentences. I guess that  happens when you share 18 years of memories. And may they continue to share many more, at the Pfister.

Carla and Tommy
Carla and Tommy

 

Pfister Files: Rosemary Steinfest

Over the next few months, I will be dusting off pages from the Pfister’s history books and sharing bits of the Pfister’s prolific history. This is the second post in this series.

Rosemary Steinfest is a bona fide rock star. She was the first and still, the only woman general manager of the Pfister Hotel. Now, after raising a family and a successful career, she golfs most every day, if she’s not at Zumba class or planning a party.

After meeting the legend herself at the Pfister in December, I knew I wanted to know more. We gabbed on the phone since she’s enjoying her retirement in sunny Arizona. I sat in the cafe imaging her warm presence radiating like the neat cup of tea keeping me company.

Rosemary Steinfest
Rosemary Steinfest

Rosemary began working as Ben Marcus’s personal secretary in 1956. She had previous experience in the movie industry with MGM pictures so Ben hired her on the spot. At the time, Ben only had 25 theaters; he didn’t own any hotels.

Throughout her 40-year tenure with the Marcus Corporation, Rosemary held the titles of director of sales, director and sales and catering, VP of the Marc Plaza hotel, and more. Of course, her most memorable position was general manager of the Pfister Hotel from 1986-1996.

She still remembers the day they promoted her. “We all attended dinner in the English Room, my children were there, and then they told me about the new position. I was so proud.” I asked what some of her favorite memories were as GM. “What can I pick out of 40 years, that is a very long story!” she retorted.

“One year, when I was in charge of coordinating the employee United Way campaign, I was really into dancing so I taught all the department heads how to do the electric slide. I did a lot of things with the employees, as opposed to as their boss.”

She admitted that it was not easy being the only woman in the executive world, but Rosemary didn’t let it get to her. “I kept my stance, and Ben and Steve always stood behind me,” she said.

Rosemary enjoyed traveling and organizing meetings for groups like the Historic Hotels of America and Preferred Hotels, as everything was of the highest caliber. “I booked all the baseball teams and the Packers. They spent one night somewhere else and wanted none of that, so I took care of them. I even brought in Regis Philbin for the Centennial,” she reminisces proudly.

The Pfister Time Capsule
The Pfister Time Capsule

Organizing the Centennial celebration in 1993 was by far her biggest undertaking. She created and closed the time capsule in the lobby. Have you ever noticed it? I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t, so I ran out to find it after we got off the phone. The beautiful emerald marble statue stands about four feet tall, right at the bottom of the staircase as you enter the lobby. It’s set to be opened in 2093 at the Pfister’s 200th anniversary.

“It was a wonderful career. Having worked there for so many years, I met all the presidents, dignitaries, and I also have so many fond memories of all the people I worked with.”

A Milwaukee native, Rosemary moved to Phoenix when she retired in 1996. She says she has a wonderful group of friends down there and they do everything together, including travel. Though she’s moved on to sunnier skies, Rosemary will always be an important part of Milwaukee and the Pfister’s history.

Working to Give

Proudly showing off her black fleece sweater with the embroidered Pfister logo, I may have just met the Pfister’s biggest fan tonight. She and her husband were certainly fans of Jeff. Like any good bartender, he took to the attention like a moth to a flame and kept them entertained in the bustling Lobby Lounge where they were perfectly content taking in all the action.

Patty had neatly bobbed blonde hair, her rosy cheeks held up a pair of oval specs, and her meek smile was warm and inviting. Burt was in a collared shirt that peeked out loosely over the top of his sweater and had tousled mad-scientist hair.

They visited the Pfister every couple of months, whenever they had time.  They live in the southern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a mere three-hour drive to Milwaukee. This time they came to town to tour the Pabst Mansion, which they would recommend to anyone who has an interest in history.

“I know who you are, we did our research on this place before we came,” Patty told me as I took the seat next to her and egged on Jeff to continue with his antics.

“Oh no wait, are you going to write about me?” her eyes widened as she asked.

“Only with your permission,” I replied. This was the first time I had met someone so nervous to talk to me.

“So what do you do for a living?” I inquired, trying to break the ice and set Patty at ease.

She kept silent and Burt said he was a computer programmer. Without saying anything, Patty slid a business card across the bar, without even making eye contact. I examined it closely: “I trade stocks for a ‘giving’” it read.

“You make money and give it away for a living? That’s so cool, I have to write about you now!” I blurted out.

“For a giving,” she corrected me.

A devotee of CNBC’s Jim Cramer and his teachings on “Mad Money,” Patty took it upon herself to learn the ins and outs of investing to generate some cash for charity. Not just a noble pursuit, but creative and enriching too. I was really in awe, so I begged to share her story.

She looked at me incredulously, consulted Burt and finally resigned, “Ok you can write about me.” I thought I was pushing my luck by asking her to take a picture, but I roped Jeff into the shot and she happily complied.

Jeff and Patty
Jeff and Patty

Patty follows Cramer’s advice as a guideline, and then makes her own decisions, “Although he’s not always right, I learned the hard way,” she admitted.

Patty does most of her giving in her hometown of Menominee, providing scholarships, donations to the animal shelters, local park and law enforcement, as well as many anonymous donations. She  has also provided significant funding to the Friends of St. Mary’s Hospital Green Bay owns the naming rights to an athletic field in Menominee.

“I’ve been doing this for about 10 years now,  and I  have given away over $50,000 in that time,” she said.

As the Lobby Lounge continued to fill up with party-goers and diners looking for a night cap, I gave up my seat and the bar and said goodbye to Patty and Burt. They were looking forward to a relaxing courtesy of their “Bed and Breakfast” package, and I couldn’t be happier that the Pfister was pampering two such lovely, generous people.

The Pool is Open!

In case anyone was wondering, the pool is open and ready for swimmers, despite the construction on the 23rd floor. I spotted two-year-old Cy, from Milwaukee, after a refreshing swim with his grandparents. They are visiting from Illinois and like grandparents do, they spoiled him with a cookie as big as his head. I just couldn’t resist sharing this picture.

 

Cy the swimmer
Cy the swimmer

Brothers Reunite

All nine of them were huddling around the wide velvet couches like a football team reviewing the game-winning play.  Then, they broke up to line up like soldiers in front of the fireplace and posed for a picture. One slight problem, the gentleman who volunteered to take the picture didn’t realize the camera wasn’t on, so I quickly intervened.

After they saw that I knew how to work one, they all began handing me their own cameras. It was clear that this was a momentous occasion and they all wanted their own copy of the picture to prove that this reunion, with wives in tow,  actually did happen.

There was a chemical engineer, social worker, nurse, art professor and more among them. They were a sacred brotherhood, bound together for life by the glorious memories of college. University life has a way of creating fast friends and memories that last a lifetime. All of them attended Washington University together in the 60’s and haven’t seen each other since.

Doug was the ringleader, who had decided to convene the team for a long-overdue reunion.They all lived together the same dormitory – “Terry Hall, it was called. And then we moved into apartments together and we even had our own home brewing operation,”  Doug joyfully recalled. His fondest memory was watching the University of Washington win the Rose Bowl in 1961 “They played against Wisconsin and they just walloped them! It was unheard of because Minnesota and Wisconsin, they were all much better teams.”

After college, the group scattered to Wisconsin (no one in Milwaukee though), California and Minnesota. Some stayed in the Washington. “So how did you all end up here at the Pfister?” I inquired. John, who now lives in East Troy, recommended  that everyone meet and stay at The Pfister. “We thought Milwaukee in March might be nice and I thought these guys would really enjoy the Pfister.”

“I learned it had all this history and art – and it went through renvoations, it’s a very Inspirational building.”

“We gasped when we walked in the room. It’s like we’re young again, it’s like going back in time.”

People were chiming in with their own views of the Pfister experience.

They were rushing off to dinner at Karl Ratzsch’s, another Milwaukee landmark. They were clearly making their own University of Washington history right here in the Pfister lobby.

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Lindsay the Magnificent Bride

“We were staying at the Pfister when it  happened.” That phrase could apply to a million different situations. Lindsay was at the Pfister for the Magnificent Bride show earlier this month, where I captured her story.

Shaun and Lindsay met at UW-Milwaukee. He – a studious PhD candidate in psychology and she – a curious lab assistant. The courtship started with a roller derby and the engagement started with a derby of a whole different kind – a bet on a Kentucky Derby race horse. Shaun was watching the derby at Maxie’s Southern Comfort when he entered his name in a raffle and won an overnight stay at the Pfister. So, he and Lindsay decided to stay at the Pfister for their one-year anniversary.

When the weekend arrived, they enjoyed dinner at the Mason Street Grill and then set out to re-create their first date at a Brew City Bruisers roller derby bout. Lindsay boldly asked Shaun out after noticing him in class. Immediately on their first date, he warned her: “You know, we can’t really date because I am your teacher’s assistant.” By the end of the night, Shaun had changed his tune. “You know, it’d be stupid if we didn’t date. Let’s talk to our professor and see if we can’t work something out,” he suggested.

Shaun and Lindsay
Shaun and Lindsay

One year later, back at the reenactment, Shaun and Lindsay sat trackside at the bout and she noticed that he was acting a little odd. “He didn’t want to converse with or hang out with any of our friends that were there, but I did’t really think anything of it.” Of course, he was just focused and didn’t want anyone or anything to deter him from his plan.

He watches her as she’s recounting the details and smiles sweetly. She’s vivacious an verbose, telling the story with the same excitement of the first time.

After the bout, they returned to the hotel to change into nice clothes to go up stairs to Blu. As Lindsay was putting the finishing touches on her look, her back was turned to Shaun and he said, “Before we go downstairs, there is something I’d like to ask you,” and he immediately got down on one knee. With her back still turned and after about a minute of dead silence, Lindsay turned around to see that the Shaun had been waiting on his knee with the ring in hand.

“That minute seemed to last forever,” confessed Shaun.

Although they had talked about marriage, Lindsay had no idea that the proposal was coming.  He had consciously stopped conversations about marriage so he could surprise her. The string of serendipity continued…

“So then we go up to Blu and there happened to be fireworks in honor of Chinese New Year!” proclaimed Lindsay. They ordered a set of chocolate-covered strawberries (Lindsay’s favorite) and the waitress came out with Congratulations written on the plate, though she had no idea that they had just gotten engaged. “It was so crazy, by pure coincidence she used this plate that was just laying around back there.”

Shaun and Lindsay are planning on tying the knot in May 2014 after graduation. “The Pfister has been a significant presence in our journey,” she said and after all this good luck, they fully intend to include the Pfister in the wedding plans.

 

Lindsay and Shaun at Blu post-engagement
Lindsay and Shaun at Blu post-engagement

 

Inspirational Women, Inspiring Change

No matter who you are or where you came from, you probably had some help along the way. At the Women Inspired to Lead event last week at the Pfister, I spoke to several role models of all ages who’ve enjoyed the support of strong women to help them get to where they are now.

The event was a benefit for PEARLS for Teen Girls, a leadership development organization for African-American and Latina girls ages 10-19. Among the 400 guests, there was a panel of diverse women leaders who shared their personal stories of inspiration.

Tawanna Jackson stood out among the crowd. She is affectionately known as the Harriet Tubman of PEARLS. She  joined the group as it was taking root photoin Milwaukee in 2002, when she was a freshman in high school. Since then, she’s worked as a team facilitator and is now the youngest member of the Board of the Directors. Tawanna, 25 years old, is an HR coordinator at US Bank. She was polished, personable and poised in a coral shift dress belted at the waist, blazer and a leopard print scarf neatly tied at her neck. I was even more impressed when she spoke.

Tawanna barely stopped to take a breath once she started extolling all the virtues of PEARLS. “I wouldn’t be where I am without PEARLS. Wherever I am, I am always a part of this organization and I am always representing,” she boasted. “It’s taught me to give back to my community too.” She continued and smiled as she recalled her experience. “I learned how to love myself. I was never a misfit, I was always focused, but PEARLS helped me to stay on that track. I understood how to carry myself as a young lady and be a role model for other young ladies.”

I ran into more smiling faces – PEARLS girls, you could just tell. They were  greeting guests at the elevators. Hydia Harris, 17, attends MC2 High School, Shante McKay, 17, goes to Riverside and Jazzlin Jones, 18, is a senior at Hope Christian School. They are all team facilitators who work with younger members of the PEARLS program and serve as role models to the middle school students. Bubbly and attentive, they were eager to answer any question. Through PEARLS, Jazzlin had the opportunity to go on a college tour and begin planning her future. Shante enjoyed the “Making Proud Choices” curriculum that teaches young women about healthy relationships and Hydia attributes her academic success to the “Strive to Achieve” program. All of these young women personified the mission of PEARLS and were excellent spokespeople for what can be achieved through opportunity, guidance and hard work.

Now on to a role model of a different caliber. Margaret HenningsenExecutive Director of the Women’s Fund of Greater Milwaukee, was a panelist and has been involved in PEARLS since it started. She and PEARLS Executive Director Danae Davis have mentored each other over the years. Margaret knows a thing or two about women and girls. She is the oldest of 10 children in her family, with five sisters who now all have daughters. “It’s been my passion to make sure women and girls are treated equally,” she said.  As the owner of the now closed Legacy Bank, Margaret most enjoyed teaching a class to PEARLS girls about managing finances.  She too has a role model: “My grandmother instilled in me to get out there and do things.”  But surprisingly, she doesn’t consider herself one.  “I am really honored to have been selected, but I never really thought of myself as someone who inspires,” she admits.

I stepped aside as the crowd flooded into the ballroom. It quickly became apparent that whether they knew it or not, all of these women affected the life of another. And this culture of community, of enabling success, is exactly what made me proud to be among that crowd.

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Hydia, Shante and Jazzlin

The Art of Storytelling with Ex Fabula

No professionals needed – just enthusiastic amateurs. That’s my kind of club. ExFabula has been organizing live storytelling events in Milwaukee since 2009. Founding member Megan McGee takes pride in helping people discover that they have a story to tell and showing them how to do it. There is only one rule – all five-minute stories must be true. And, each event has a theme that storytellers must stick to. “The themes aren’t a way to restrict people, they should just be starting off point,” explains Megan. “Eventually everyone connects with something.”

Andrew Larsen got involved last fall and has been telling stories at several of the monthly events. He clears his throat and his baritone voice booms sarcastically, “I like the hearing the sound of my own voice.”  By day, Andrew is a history teacher at Marquette and a passionate advocate for the art of storytelling. “History is really just a collection of stories,” he says, and he often uses storytelling to engage his students. “It’s fun telling stories,” he confesses, “Its is how people used to entertain each other years ago before technology. American culture has taught people to be really passive. Live storytelling allows the audience to take an active role in their entertainment.”

Andrew Larsen and Megan McGee
Andrew Larsen and Megan McGee

I met Andrew and Megan in the Pfister lobby to talk about their upcoming event and was able to coerce Andrew into sharing a story.  (See below) “There are a few key elements to a good story,” he explains, “The delivery certainly matters and it helps if its relatable.” Andrew’s poise, confidence and articulation definitely shine through when the spotlight is on him.

At each event the are scheduled storytellers and people who volunteer that night.  Funny stories always go over well,  but are not the only effective ones. “The story I liked the most was actually serious, it was about a very challenging conversation with my father,” admits Andrew.

Think you want try your hand at storytelling? The theme for the next ExFabula event on Tuesday, March 12  is “Green.”  The event will be at Club Giribaldi in Bayview and admission is $5 at the door. About half of the crowd are newcomers and half are regulars. Andrew plans on telling a story and assures that it’s a very supportive atmosphere. “Our audience appreciates people who are brave enough to tell their stories, Megan chimes in. “Every story inspires another.”

For more information on ExFabula or the event on March 12, click here.

See Andrew tell his story “Blind Date” that he told last month at an ExFabula event.

 

Long-Lost Sisters

Though we weren’t able to meet face-to-face during her stay, Simone Ingram shared her story with me via email. Here is her incredible story, in her own words…

One day, I logged onto Facebook and had a message in my inbox asking if I had a dad named Dennis Michael Cudmore and a brother named Jean-Paul. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I read it and re-read it a million times and didn’t know what to do.

It was my sister Ciera who found me on Facebook. I never even knew I had a sister. That evening I called my brother and asked if he was sitting down and if he had a drink in his hand. He replied yes to both so I told him the news – it looked like we had a sister in America. My sister Ciera DesJardins has a two-year-old little girl and just got engaged. We were both speechless. Ciera had been looking for us for as long as she could remember. Neither of us knew our father, she only knew about us from what her mum had told her, for which I shall be eternally grateful.

For the past three years, Ciera and I have mailed each other regularly and tried to Skype once, but we kept losing connection. I have been desperate to meet her since she first got in touch with me. This past year on my Christmas list, I put that I would like to meet my sister.  On Christmas Day, after we had opened our presents, my husband said that he had one more thing for me. I had always wanted to have a nice English afternoon tea at the Ritz and had mentioned this on numerous occasions, so when he gave me an envelope I thought, this is it, my tea at the Ritz.  I opened the envelope and could not believe what I saw, he had organized for the two of us to fly to Milwaukee for a week to meet my sister. As you can imagine the tears flowed with happiness and I just could not stop smiling.

My husband Ian had arranged everything with Ciera, she was in on it all along. Ian said that because this was to be a trip of a lifetime,  he had chosen a very lovely hotel for us to stay in. And The Pfister sure was lovely.  I had never been to America before. I’m from a small town called Barnstaple in Devon, England so to see everything supersize blew my mind away at times.

Ciera and I met at the airport. We just hugged and giggled nervously – my husband filmed it all. We spent the week together getting to know each other and finding out we have similar ways, likes and dislikes – neither of us like mushrooms or anchovies. Someone actually said we looked alike, in our smiles. We were both delighted, as I am 20 years older than Ciera – she’s only 23.

We also took a trip to Chicago, which for me was very special, as our dad lived in Chicago. The last known address I had for him was in Hinsdale, Illinois. Before I met Ciera, I always wanted to go to Chicago to see if I could find him.  Walking along looking at the sites side by side with my sister filled my heart. Knowing I was in the same city and walking the same paths he may have walked was enough. I had flesh and blood with me. In my mind and heart I confirmed I would never ever let this young girl be apart from me again. I felt warmth and love that only blood can produce.

My dad left England when I was about five. He was a top hairdresser and worked with Vidal Sassoon. My mum had always said he was a very talented hairdresser. Sadly though since he left England, I have only seen him once when I was 16. We exchanged letters on a regular basis but one day about 10 years ago, the letters stopped and we’ve heard nothing since. Ciera has never seen him, she has only spoken to him once on the phone. We are not sure if he is alive or passed on. A sad side to our story.

Everyone at the Pfister was so friendly, warm and welcoming. We felt like royals and particularly enjoyed time sat by the open fire listening to the wonderful pianists. And the breakfasts were to die for, they kept us going throughout the day. The hash browns are nothing like the ones we get, yours are much nicer. I also got my afternoon tea! We shared afternoon tea in Blu and it was a lovely – wonderful tea, beautiful food, fantastic harpist, and outstanding view, all capped off sat next to my sister, just perfect.

We had a very special week which was over too fast.  It was sad to leave Ciera, her fiancé Ross and my niece. We vowed we would both start to save so we could visit again. We had a few tears when we left, and  when I landed in England I had more again, as I felt so far away from her. I would love for Ciera to come to England so I can show her her roots and I know my brother would love to meet her too. I would also love my two girls to meet their auntie, uncle and cousin.

Ian, Ciera and Simone
Ian, Ciera and Simone