Since 1998, Rocman “Roc” Whitesell graced the Concierge desk with his kindly face, attentive eye, impeccable manners, quick-witted problem-solving, and, of course, his ability to create memorable stories with the Hotel’s most intriguing and interesting guests. “Have him tell you the story about Johnny Depp. Has he told you the one about the Duchess of York? You know he helped out the Crown Prince of Dubai, right?” I knew I’d only have so much time to talk to him before he officially retired at 10 pm on July 27th. How to unearth and accommodate so many memories?
I did have time to learn how he waltzed around the lobby with Sarah Ferguson, but I was, frankly, much more interested watching him interrupt our conversation to accept baseball cards from a fast-talking, middle-aged man in exchange for some free travel brochures of Milwaukee (presumably so the man could sell them?), make dinner reservations at Carnevor for a rather brusque traveler, get a suggestion from a fellow associate for another customer, offer an umbrella to a family out to take a walk, and engage a woman from Louisville who wanted to know if it was safe to run in Milwaukee at 6 am (the two shared stories about living in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky, right next to each other, and about working in non-profits that served, for her, victims of sexual abuse, for Roc, young people in poverty).
He would tell me later that he doesn’t know what kind of baggage people are bringing with them when they enter the Hotel. By baggage, he didn’t mean luggage; instead, he meant the kinds of things that could make someone sell free brochures or act curtly or express caution. He doesn’t know if someone’s just gotten laid off of work or come back from a doctor visit, if someone has just had an argument with a significant other or learned that someone has passed away or failed a job interview. So he treats each visitor to the Hotel, whether a guest or a passerby, equally. For 18 years, Roc has treated each visitor like a human being worthy of his respect–and the Hotel’s respect (even those who get too tipsy and belligerent in the Lobby Lounge are escorted out with dignity, Roc told me).
This became the theme of our delightful conversation at the Concierge desk as Roc held down his post in the last hours of his career at The Pfister. Respect. Anyone eavesdropping on us would think we were talking about pianos, the genesis of talent, Robin Williams, African American quilting, the supernatural, and Frank Loesser’s 1948 musical Where’s Charley? But what it all boiled down to, in the end, was how we should respect other people, not only because of who they appear to be on the surface but especially because of all that is below the surface that we can’t see, that we do not know.
I am honored to have finally gotten a chance–even at the last minutes, literally–to talk to the seemingly peerless Roc, filled with wonder at the diversity of the humans of The Pfister.
As Dr. Jeffrey Hollander performed in the background, Roc began by musing on the rapid demise of the piano. He spoke respectfully of both the past and the present, but clearly leaned to the side of nostalgia.
Piano playing used to be a standard. In the past, every family struggled to be able to afford a piano or pianola. Families would play for each other. I was raised in southern Indiana in a Quaker community that had existed for three hundred years. Back in the 1890s, in rural areas like the one my father and grandfather grew up in, there was no electricity, no airplanes. There were chores, working with the cattle and the fields. For entertainment, there would be barn dances or parties at neighbor family’s houses, so everyone would bring an instrument–a ukulele or a guitar or a harmonica. And there was very often a piano. Now, everything is on our phones or computers. No one gathers around an instrument anymore with friends and family.
This led to us talking about talent and where it comes from. Roc claims that talent is the human brain’s way of filling in psychological gaps for people.
I took piano lessons in high school, but I soon found out that that wasn’t going to work for me. I’ve learned–or at least it’s my intuition–that people with great talent often have a major personality ‘flaw’ that they’re contending with.
Here’s a story: The actress Debbie Reynolds stayed with The Pfister nine times. She had a show at Potawatomi and she would tell me about her life. Then one day when she was in the lobby, an old man came to me–he was only a few years younger than I was. It was Mickey Rooney. I took him over to Ms. Reynolds and when they set eyes on each other, they both burst into tears. “Sit with us,” Ms. Reynolds gestured to me. I told her, “I’m in uniform now. I’m not allowed.” Then she commanded: “When a Hollywood actress tells you to sit, you sit.” While we talked, Mr. Rooney told me stories, like the one about Judy Garland. He said that Garland was crazy as a loon. She was an immeasurable talent on stage and screen, but the minute the lights came on, she couldn’t find her way to the door. She was so disoriented. This is why studios like MGM used to control actor’s lives so closely–when you got up, where you went, who you married–so that people wouldn’t see these ‘character flaws.’ So I think there’s something in the brain of those with incredible talents that tries to supply the missing link of ‘normalcy,’ that link that most other people seem to have. The brain searches for that–and it comes out as talent. And if it doesn’t happen one way, then they keep searching, searching, searching for another way to supply that ‘normalcy.’
Take the late Robin Williams, too. He stayed with us ten times. He would make reservations under the name ‘Teddy Roosevelt.’ I’d look at the guest list and say to myself, ‘I bet that’s not really Teddy Roosevelt.’ Or he’d order a drink up to his room–something I usually wouldn’t do, but I did it for him–and answer my knock on the door in a high-pitched female voice. And one day, he came down to the lobby in old overalls, a checkered shirt, dirty boots, and a straw hat, and walked outside. Well, we were having a society event that day, so there were lots of mink coats and limos. He’d walk up to women, look them up and down, and say things like “Ah swore ah ne’er seen anythin’ like it.” Women would scurry across the lobby to get away from him, then stop and realize that something was a little off. Robin Williams’ incredible talent obscured what we only found out after he died: that he suffered from horrible depression.
One exception to this idea about talent filling in for a ‘character flaw’ was Jane Fonda. She loved folk art and was into finding folk artists and moving them up. One day, a bunch of ladies arrived in the lobby–I wasn’t sure who they were–followed by Jane Fonda. There was an old Black woman and some of her relatives, and it turns out they were quilters from Gee’s Bend, Indiana, a community of about 700 people, most descended from slaves. I asked the woman how she and her family learned how to make quilts like theirs. She told me, “Our ancestors taught us. The designs were sometimes handed down to us from Africa.” And when I asked her “Why quilts?” she replied cattily, “Honey, it gets cold sometimes, especially when you don’t have heat.” And there was Jane Fonda, in the background, a quiet actress helping these ladies out. She was pretty ‘normal.’
In a seeming tangent, Roc began talking about the supernatural.
There was a professor from Princeton who visited us. He said he was here to study the supernatural because science is finally taking a real look at what people have called ‘supernatural’ for millions of years. People aren’t that stupid. If people have been noticing the same thing for millions of years, something must be up. So we’re beginning, finally, to look. There have been research studies where out of ten thousand people who recently lost a loved one, over 50% of them had a vision of that loved one within three days of losing them. There has to be something to that. People radiate energy. It doesn’t dissipate. So maybe what they’re seeing is the brain picking up on residual energy and translating that into what we call a ‘ghost.’ We could call these people psychotics and lock them up like we used to. Or we can say, “There’s something in the human brain that causes people to see things.”
I kept trying to figure out the common thread in all these anecdotes, but it became clearer now: we are ignorant of so much in this world, so who are we to judge? People used to dance in barns and play pianos by candlelight. A talented comedian can die of depression. Some people see ghosts. Some people study people who see ghosts. Roc’s father, who passed away at the age of 100 a few years ago, used to tell him, “There is so much that we don’t understand.”
As a recently former high school English teacher, my ears perked up when Roc told me about how he took his father’s wisdom with him when he was a young high school teacher.
I taught high school Latin, German, and English. I remember there was one kid, Randy, who was so bad at Latin. He didn’t come to class, he didn’t do the homework, he was getting nowhere. So I took him to the Theater Department. Pretty soon he was dancing to Ray Bolger–what’s that song? “Once in love with Amy, always in love with Amy.” Randy hit the stage and began to dance. He bounced, he twisted. Years later, I heard tapping and singing down the hall. An old man–he’s only a few years younger than me (I was 23 back then)–was singing “Once in love with Amy, always in love with Amy”! I looked at him and said, “Randy, is that you?” Of course it was. He thanked me: “That play you put me in taught me that I wasn’t a complete fool.” Randy had gone on to law school and was now a judge in Indiana. We never realize how that quarter we drop is going to affect someone down the line. We just never know.
It is heartening to know that there have always been teachers who could look at a child and ask, “What is it that we don’t know about you? Who are you and what are you good at? What else could we try to educate you? What aren’t we doing now that we should try?” I think I was one of these, so it was fascinating to imagine Roc working with Randy half a century or so ago.
I’ll leave you with this final insight from Roc, which perfectly describes the mission of The Pfister Hotel, which he has served for eighteen years:
Part of my Quaker upbringing was seeing everyone as an equal. Even the fact that at university, everyone was addressed by their first and last name. That was like acknowledging with every name, “Bang, you’re a human being.” That’s why I like the Pfister motto of “People pleasing people.” It could have been “Servants serving masters” or “Employees serving guests.” But no, it’s people pleasing people. Destiny picked me up from Indiana and plopped me in this hotel. There’s some sort of plan out there.
May your destiny take you on new adventures, Roc. Whatever they may be, wherever you are, I am confident you will bring enough respect and dignity to go around.
A NOTE & INVITATION TO READERS:
If you read this post and enjoyed it (or even if you didn’t enjoy it) and ever had a positive, memorable encounter with Roc, please consider replying below with your memory, however short or long. If it’s not a memory, but just a word of thanks or congratulations or good wishes, please use the comment box below, too!