His shocking story sparks inspiration

Ranachith “Ronnie” Yimsut is a genocide survivor, an orphan and a refugee. He is also a brother, husband, father, architect, author, teacher and social justice activist.

But more than anything, Ronnie is an inspiration.

I met Ronnie in the Cafe at the Pfister and I don’t think I have ever said fewer words during an interview. All I could do was listen, nod and occasionally fight back a tear.

Ronnie was born in Cambodia during the early years of the Vietnam War. When the Khmer Rouge moved in, 12-year-old Ronnie and his family were forced into work camps.

Ronnie suffered two years of hard labor, starvation and warfare. He was the only survivor of a Killing Fields attack in December 1977 where he lost nine of his 12 family members, including his parents.

After fleeing the site on foot, Ronnie eventually reached Thailand where he was jailed. He was later moved to a “holding center” where he learned how to plant and harvest crops. He was finally able to eat more food, but still only weighed 80 pounds at the age of 16.

Eventually, news crews began to appear at the center and Ronnie told his traumatic story and showed his scars to the world. When a distant aunt, who worked for Voice of America in Washington, D.C., saw that he was still alive, she sponsored his emigration.

So Ronnie, believing at the time he was the sole survivor in his family, came to the United States just before his 17th birthday. He enrolled at a high school in Washington, D.C. and later finished up in Portland, Ore. He then got a degree in architecture from the University of Oregon.

While in college, Ronnie learned his oldest brother and sister had survived and were in a refugee camp in Thailand with their families.

“Overnight, I had 13 mouths to support,” he says.

For five years, Ronnie sent money to them while working two or three jobs and going to school full time. He also took out loans to help them and eventually move them to the United States.

Five years ago, Ronnie relocated to Milwaukee to accept a job as a senior landscape architect for the USDA Forest Service. He brought his wife and two children, now adults, with him.

But this is only two-thirds of Ronnie’s story. One-third of his life is dedicated to activism and giving back to his homeland.

In 1993, Ronnie envisioned a school that would train and empower rural villagers to live sustainable lives. Eventually, he designed and built Bakong Technical College in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where he is now the non-paid chairman of the board.

The college trains men and women a variety of skills including language, carpentry, construction, masonry, hospitality, food science, small engine repair, bicycle repair, clothing making and more. The students are also taught about the tourist industry.

Ronnie has written numerous books, including his most recent book, “Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Journey.” He is also a human rights activist and has frequent speaking engagements about genocide.

When he paused to take a sip of his drink and a bite of his sandwich, I was speechless, humbled, inspired. I cannot imagine experiencing so much violence and hardship and culture shock and to come out of it so strong and smart and committed – without debilitating anger, without hate.

“I shouldn’t be here,” said Ronnie, whose given name, “Ranachith,” means “undefeated warrior” in Sanskrit. “But I am. And so, I am making the most of my life.”

Update: Ronnie also took some time to speak with Artist-in-Residence, Stephanie Barenz during his visit to The Pfister. Stephanie has since created a painting inspired by his story.

Talking art, storytelling and friendship

They weren’t sure if they wanted to talk to me and I don’t blame them. Their lives are busy and consequently they get to spend so little time together. And they don’t know me.

But slowly, carefully, Muriel and Susan opened up to me.

We talked about art, but mostly, about friendship. And like all cherished friendships, Muriel’s and Susan’s 22-year friendship is a mosaic of similarities and differences.

Muriel grew up in Wisconsin; Susan in Illinois. Today, Susan lives on the South Side; Muriel is in the North Shore. They have different marital statuses. Muriel is single by choice; Susan has been married for years.

But their similarities are plentiful. They both love visual art, writing, theater and …

“We both really like to have fun,” says Muriel.

On this particular day, the ladies are having fun in the Lobby Bar after a visit to the art museum. It’s become an annual tradition, one they usually do during Super Bowl season. This year, however, Muriel had family obligations and they had to postpone it.

They have other connections to the Pfister as well. They attended tea at Blu. They are also both fans of former Pfister Artist In Residence, Shelby Keefe, and visited her studio.

So what makes a good friendship? I ask them, after asking myself this very question a thousand times in the past three years when it came time in my life to reevaluate my relationships. (But that’s another blog.)

“Someone you can count on no matter what’s going on in your life not to judge you. Someone who is there to listen if nothing else, but even more than listen, to be responsive. It’s so basic. Just somebody you can count on,” says Susan.

“It’s really nice to have a girlfriend,” says Muriel.

“Especially when you’re married,” says Susan, laughing softly.

Somehow we start talking about the local storytelling group, Ex Fabula, and New York-based storytelling group, The Moth. We all attended storytelling events in the past – I actually competed in and won an Ex Fabula story slam earlier this year – and marvel at the newfound popularity of storytelling.

People are flocking to public spaces just to hear stories? This is wonderful, but a little suprising. Is it backlash to technology? Is it because people have forgotten how to really talk to one another? Is it because strangers, like us, don’t usually open up?

We live in a society based on asking forgiveness when we provide too much information and we watch reality TV but don’t want to disclose honest, personal information.

We post our breakfasts but not our fears on Facebook.

“I used to work here,” Muriel offers up at one point in our conversation. She goes on to share wonderful stories of working at the Pfister Cafe, then called The Greenery, in the late ‘70s. And then we share more stories, these were off the record. (Sorry.)

Oh, the things we learn when we listen. The things we say when we think someone is listening. Really listening.

Chef Brian Selects: New Items in the Café at the Pfister

Winter is knocking, and the temperature is dropping. What better way to keep the pulse going at the Pfister than introducing a new menu in the Café. With over a dozen new delicious options, we’re hoping we can please any palette that stops for lunch at the Café this winter. Check out Chef Brian as he introduces two of his favorites in the videos !


The Café at The Pfister’s NEW Fire Sugar Pork Finger Wraps (Tacos)

Featuring braised pork, delicious fennel & blue cheese slaw and some of our house-made Pfister pickles – these finger wraps are a fantastic treat!

The Café at The Pfister’s NEW Fried Chicken and Waffles

This spectacular buttermilk fried chicken comes with rosemary waffle, red-eye gravy and fresh green beans!

Meet n’ Greet with Pfister Staff. Do you know your Cafe Barista’s?

It’s time for Meet n’ Greets with the Pfister Staff again. We took a little break but we are back with a great crew this time.  Do you know your Café at the Pfister Baristas? Please meet Natalie,Roy, and Sam, this great group gets in extra early to make sure that you get your morning fix of java.

How long have you worked at the Pfister?  Natalie-4 months, Roy-6 months, Sam-6 months

Why do you like best about working at the Pfister Hotel?

 Natalie: The people I work with are a lot of fun and all of the interesting guests.
: Everyone who works here is really nice.  I get to meet a lot of people and its great working downtown.
Sam: I love that everyone is so friendly and helpful with everything.

What is your favorite Pfister memory or experience?

Natalie: Working downtown during all the festivals.        
Roy: Working during the big dance competition.                   
Sam: New memories are created all the time, I can’t just pick one.

Tell us something we may not know about you?

Natalie: I actually worked as a barista at the Grand Geneva Resort before coming here.
Roy: I won a limbo contest this summer in Las Vegasat the Palms, I won a great prize and felt special.
Sam: I used to have a pet pig named Duke, he once ate a pair of my glasses.

 What is the oddest/weirdest request that you have ever received from a guest?

All together: Extra Dry-Decaf-Half Soy-Half Ski-Four Shot Cappuccino

Thank you so much Natalie, Roy, and Sam for participating in our Meet n’ Greet sessions.  Look forward to hearing from more Pfister Staff on the Pfister Blog.

Natalie, Roy, and Sam

Games People Play


There’s a clattering sound that breaks into the still, Sunday afternoon quiet of the lobby lounge.  It’s startling, but muted enough that nobody else turns to look.  When I do look, I see wooden blocks, scattered over the top of one of the lobby tables, as three young men in t-shirts and shorts settle in for a game of Jenga.

Within seconds, I’m parked in the fourth chair for a round of this tricky, wooden block stacking game.  Introductions are made: Michael, Mike and Mikey* all offer up a firm handshake and a slight southern accent.  All in from Dallas, Texas, they are here for their 8th year staying at the Pfister for Northwestern Mutual’s annual network representative meeting.  Mike and Mikey are killing time waiting for their scheduled massages at WELLspa, and Michael eyes up a nap, as they’re all three heading to the Milwaukee County Zoo later this afternoon for a “garden party” put on by NML as one of the numerous family-friendly events going on around town at any number of our institutions and museums.

“If there’s any way you can get in,” says one of them, “you want to go.  It’s so much fun!”

We talk and laugh while taking turns testing a wedged block, then slowly tapping, pushing, pulling until one ekes free, followed by an even slower, more tentative placing of said block on the top of the increasingly unbalanced tower.

We talk about Milwaukee – they like exploring the town when they’re here, heading to nearby watering holes in the evening hours – and they tell me what to check out in Dallas, if I ever go: Barcadia, a bar featuring old-school arcade games, like Tron and Space Invaders, is definitely up my alley.

The three are all equally as similar as they are different.  Tall and fair, a little on the soft-spoken side; tall and dark, but warmly gregarious; and frat boy turned father of two who still know show to crack the great jokes.  All three are married with kids, and, as we played and chatted, Michael announced that he just heard from his wife the night before that she’s starting a blog, too.

“Too?”  I asked.

Yes: “too”.  Apparently the wives of the other two already keep blogs—mostly on the domestic side, though the primary focus and purpose is to keep friends and family in the know with their kids’ lives: photos and stories and so forth.

Part of their boyish camaraderie comes from the fact that they work in the same office, started right around the same time, and are all about the same age.  They talk easily about how they don’t feel directly in competition with one another (though Mikey did win a recent sales contest that allowed for him and his wife to join 49 other couples for a weekend trip to San Francisco), even as they operate solely on commission and therefore are competing for the same market base.  Of course, part of this comes from a low market share in their region, but a bigger part of this comes from that feeling of family you get simply by working with people you like for 40 hours a week in the same physical space.

Available games to check out also include cards, Mancala, Uno, Chess/Checkers, Apples to Apples, Monopoly, Poker, Scrabble and more! Any of which I will gladly take on any challenger any time...

We applauded poor Mikey for his attempts to goad us into toppling the tower, though ultimately it fell for him.  A second round tumbled for Mike.  Kudos were given to Michael and I for not losing twice in a row.  Mikey went off to get his massage, and the remaining three of us went in for a game of Yahtzee.  Having not played in 15 years, they were patient with me as I re-learned the game, from scratch.

While they were only three out of the estimated 10,000 people who came to Milwaukee earlier this week, they reflected what I saw in most of the people passing through the lobby during the days of the conference: warm, polite, friendly, and family-oriented but not without a penchant for some fun.  And, thanks to the games shelf now taking up space in the Pfister Cafe, we had a ton of fun.

*Two out of these three names are real.  The third, well, we all agreed it would be a lot more fun to just give him a similar moniker as the other two.

Marcus Chefs at East Town Market

The East Town Market is celebrating its 15th summer at Cathedral Square Park and the Cafe Pfister and the Chefs of the Pfister, seek Intercontinental, Hilton, and Mason Street Grill are a part of this year’s live entertainment and food.  On Saturday mornings, from 9am – 1pm, The Cafe Pfister is proudly serving its Starbucks Coffee, Pfister Bloody Mary’s and Mimosas, cold drinks, pastries, and ice cream.  On Tuesday evenings from 3pm – 7pm the Café Pfister will sell sangria, assorted beers, wine, pastries and snacks.

The Chefs of Mason Street Grill, Pfister Hotel, Intercontinental, and Hilton will also be featured on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings at the Chef’s Series.  Each chef will demonstrate a recipe and offer free tastings of the recipe that they have prepared. Chef Mark Weber was on center stage on Tuesday evening and wowed the crowd with a delicious summer vegetable gazpacho with shrimp.

Over 100 Wisconsin farmers, craftsmen, bakers, entertainers, and chefs will be a part of the market with fresh produce, crafts, food, and activities.


Saturdays         June 4 – October 29                 9 AM – 1 PM

Tuesdays          June 7 – September 27             3 – 7 PM


Tuesday, June 7                     Chef Mark Weber – 6:00 PM

Tuesday, June 14                   Chef David Zakroczymski – 6:00 PM

Tuesday, June 28                   Chef Thomas Hauk – 6:00 PM

Saturday, July 9                     Chef David Zakroczymski – 10:00 AM

Tuesday, July 19                    Chef Robert Ash – 6:00PM

Tuesday, July 26                    Chef Mark Weber – 6:00PM

Tuesday, August 2                 Chef Thomas Hauk – 6:00PM

Tuesday, August 9                 Chef Robert Ash – 6:00PM

Tuesday, August 16               Chef David Zakroczymski – 6:00PM

Saturday, August 27              Chef Robert Ash – 10:00AM

Tuesday, August 30               Chef Brian Frakes – 6:00PM

Tuesday, September 6           Chef Robert Ash – 6:00PM

Tuesday, September 13         Chef David Zakroczymski – 6:00PM

Tuesday, September 20         Chef Mark Weber – 6:00PM

Tuesday, September 27         Chef Thomas Hauk – 6:00PM

Saturday, October 8              Chef Robert Ash – 10:00AM

Saturday, October 29            Chef Robert Ash – 10:00AM

Chef Weber of Mason Street Grill

Passing of the Pen

That’s what we’re calling it. The official sign-off, remedy hand-over and next phase of the Narrator position. I’m not eager to give it up, but when I see Stacie again today, I realize “how can I not?”

Standing in the middle of the hotel lobby, she’s the brightest thing there. She’s been through the PR ringer, having her poster made, providing quotes for a press release, learning the blog system and now, today, taking some photos with me. Her look is bright and excited, mingled with a bit of overwhelmed awe.

I take her to my favorite seat, the plush couch in the lobby bar and before I can even settle in enough to ask the questions I had on my mind—turning the tables one last time and choosing the writer as my subject—Val is there, describing the time capsule in the lobby and reminding us that the Marcus company is very into history and preserving generational linkages. I thought it was appropriate as Stacie and I build the first link in what should be a very long chain of storytelling.

I don’t have to ask her anything, actually. She just starts telling. I worry as I listen if she is a better ambassador than a writer. She’s already describing to me the room we’re sitting in, how she’d depict the feeling of the plush couch that hasn’t been replaced in a long time “Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s good. Good, really. Look,” she says, bouncing on the cushion “it’s what makes it so soft.” Before I can comment, she’s telling about the baseball fans she saw in the lobby the day she took some head shots there and just as I laugh and agree that I’ve seen many a sports-reveler in the hotel, she is on to the next subject.

I’m convinced (not that I wasn’t prior to our ad hoc “all this is now yours” ceremony) that she’s the perfect heir to the throne. (I’m unabashed. It is a throne. It was such an amazing seat of honor, and not just because it was plush and well-worn). It’s not just that I’ve finally met a woman who talks more than I do (friends of mine will laugh at that; I think, after getting to know Stacie, I suspect friends of hers are giggling as well). But her talk is measured. She catches what surrounds us—from the bearded man who made an entrance and enjoyed his solitary glass of water in the lobby and mysteriously reappeared in the café when we walked through, to the staff and guests walking past us wondering about the cameras. She’s so full of things to say and so eager to not just say them, but write them.

That was the best part of talking with Stacie today. I had questions in mind, but all skirted the real subject: Writing. I was nervous to talk about writing. Writers are fickle (at least I am). It’s such a heartfelt, soul-releasing endeavor to mold words on a page and it’s so subject to critique that to discuss it raw and in the open is a delicate enterprise and Stacie has been reading my words. She’s seen my enterprise and now, she sits with me, suddenly there, gathering the words with me. We could both tell this story. Betwen us, it would be a choose-your-own-adventure and oh so different. Is the hand off today the doorway to a critique of what was experience as much as storytelling, craft as much as guest service?

When I interviewed for this position, interested parties asked me what I hoped to gain as a writer by the time I was done. I knew I wanted more stories than I could tell and more flexing of my pen than I could stand. I wanted to fatigue my muscles, douse the page in water because it overheated and beat my best time in a sprint across the sentences.

I reached many of those goals; I have measures of success ticked off in my notebook. But as I pass the pen, like a baton in a relay, I know that the next runner can be faster. Her way with words will reach different ends and move her to places I didn’t achieve during my residency.

Today we photographed me introducing Stacie to some of my favorite hotel staffers, my favorite hotel nooks and crannies and the memories of some of my stories. I tried to retell them but she already knew. It was a final tick in my notebook. Someone read my writing; someone is picking up where I left off.

It’s my turn to read, and I cannot wait to see how this story ends. Best of luck to you, Stacie, you have the pen that preserves the Pfister.

The Inner Circle

So, drugstore I got to meet her: my replacement. There are so many lessons in life out there waiting for you and only a few you’re fortunate enough to catch. I am lucky enough to have started a project and to have the opportunity to hand it off. I’m not the CEO of some big company (yet), not an entrepreneur (yet) and not any of the other typically tenured folks in high ranking positions who perform very public changings of the guards. I’m no Tony Soprano, sitting at the head of the table, handing out orders.

But I was (am! Still am!) the first Pfister Narrator and I truly cannot decide which part has of the entire role has yielded the best life lessons. Right now, I’m realizing how completely unprepared  I was  for the process of watching other writers talk about writing and process and how they’d do it differently. I read other writers all the time, but I don’t often have breakfast with them.

Stacie Williams cannot be contained. After she was chosen, one of the persons who coordinated the interviews leaned in close in the hall and said knowingly, “Oh, you’ll like her, Julie.”

And I do.

 Even when sitting, listening, she’s the most active listener you’ll meet, though not in that disconnected Aunt Susie “mmhmm…mmhmmm..” kind of way. She buzzes and receives every word.

I felt like we were planning world domination when the hotel manager, PR director and Stacie and I huddled in a corner of the newly remodeled café. Our table seemed very VIP and in a very non-narrator, non feng shui move, my last-to-arrive status had me with my back to the room. So this is what the end feels like—my back to the room. In all my watching, and listening and talking at the Pfister, I’ve never seated myself with my back to the room.

Repeat after me: Change is good. Change is good. Change is good.

What offered the most comfort is, each time I opened my mouth to speak, Stacie had my words. I suspect Joe Kurth, our hotel manager, was really having déjà vu when she asked, in nearly the exact same phrasing, the same questions I did when I started. It wasn’t just asking about the rules or the limits. The morning was full of questions about possibilities. I wanted to point out the things I’d learned—stop by this corner on Tuesdays to see so and so. Make sure to eat the oatmeal. Ride the elevator in the opposite direction than you intend so you can ride it longer and chat with more people. Then, I realized, as I watched Stacie’s eyes constantly watching, her body positioned to see the entire café: she was already working; she’s already slipped right into the job.

Suddenly I felt like I was at Tony Soprano’s table, but instead of handing out orders, our inner circle of news, policies, information and process was much more ordinary. There aren’t a lot of rules. There’s one big general framework that we’ve been following and hopefully, been wrapping you—the blog readers—into. You create the stories, the feeling, the character. You have drinks here, you get married here, you stumble in after an amazing night on the town and wind down in the lobby here and you meet with clients right here on our couches. The best part of my role is realizing that the inner circle at the Pfister is you.

Scaling Forward

I’m a Libra. Some of you may have already guessed as much. One of our best qualities is indecision. Our symbol is the scales because we try to be fair and just.

I was happy to share indecision Thursday with my colleagues at the Pfister as we looked at the six finalists for the Narrator position to begin in May.

Choosing your replacement is a difficult task. Many of us would choose…well, medicine us.

But I’ve heard, and believe it’s true, that “if you’re not replaceable, you’re not promotable.” But of course, this is where our debate formed. Who is promotable? All of the candidates were writers, storytellers and engaging people, illness in a word, all could narrate. Who should get promoted to Narrator, however, was the big question.

There were so many amazing things to see and read. I loved the videos of the candidates, not just for their film quality (thanks April and Pete; and by the way candidates, they made you look fantastic) but because for weeks, we’ve only known these people on paper. We’ve conjured images of them in the lobby, we’ve envisioned them drinking one of Val’s bloody Marys, retelling (or trying to) her amazing recipe. We’ve seen them on the threshold of a summer wedding gala, documenting it all.

But we never saw them in person. Here they were, up close, chattering, nervous, excited and to their credit…bursting with ideas. That alone became a fantastic qualifier for each of them. Do we choose based on who is bringing profile-writing experience, literary experience or pure unadulterated energy to the position? Or should we evaluate based on how they talked about the hotel? Do they like the art, the history, the beauty or the things it houses?

I think the committee members should each be responsible for a blog too, or we should have been filmed (I’m cringing as I say this… unsure if I’ll keep my new friends when this gets published). Facial reactions, oohs and ahhs, “great idea” “I didn’t think of that” “oh, I like her” and more resonated from our select corner of the newly remodeled café where Starbucks flowed among us but the really energy came from drinking in the vibrant options before us.

We just couldn’t choose.

That’s a compliment, candidates.

For me, listening to their plans and ideas was rejuvenating and hard—there’s so much left to tell and my time is growing short. That’s the beauty of it though, there’s no shortage of stories. The Pfister provides: in every guest a novel, in every event a sense of scene.

We did choose. We chose well; and we considered the charming smile, the great colors, the wonderfully themed sample piece, the pictures, the youth, the wisdom, the experience, the salesmanship, the recommendations, the effervescence, the technology, the reading list, the Pfister favorites, the drive, the energy…the embodiment of a Narrator.

This Libra is proud to say her scales of indecision, out of balance all afternoon, finally teetered into agreement. Soon, you too will meet our Narrator and see just how decisively she will compliment the hotel and document its story.

Hustle and Bustle and Herb

The café has been remodeled. Its doors reopened this week. I tentatively crossed its threshold, hospital into my favorite spot in the hotel. I have to say my worries about change were eased when I ventured in the first day to find the buzz of the space was the same.

            The changes are amazing though…Starbucks (enough said) and pastries (the red velvet cupcakes, after so carefully deposited in the conundrum of a to-go box were devoured and praised by my office mates—thanks, Roy) add motion to the café.

            When I walked in, people were shopping in the gift nook, someone was in line for coffee and I honestly overheard chocolate covered somethings-or-other whisper my name. The new additions to the café actually harness a worldly feel. It’s all the hopefulness, motion and adventure of an airport with none of the expense, delay, rough crowd or anonymity. You can’t be anonymous in the café if you’ve ever once been seated by Annette.

            Annette, long time hostess of the café, actually looked relieved, bright and more than ready to slide right back into her role in the new-again space. When I chatted with her about how the changes were taking—granted, it had only been a day—she immediately let me know that right away that morning, people flocked to the comfy made-for-laptop-users corner and rode the waves of industry and Facebook into morning, clicking away at their keys. I had forgotten we were adding a television to the well-connected lounge space and had to smile at the very Pfister-esque touch of a gilded frame surrounding the flat screen. Remarking on this, Annette said, in perfect dry humor, “Ah, yes… I really thought they’d play The Young and the Restless at 11 o’clock, but they just left it on this.” She gestured toward the Headline News silently flickering above us. Perfect. The nook, complete with an Annette, is perfect.

            The servers have new aprons, still creased from their fresh folds, and there are different banquettes available. The business hasn’t changed—the suits still dominate the discussion and meetings and progress still charge forward over Senator Kohl’s Tuna sandwiches. Time is short, people hustle, mergers happen and talking with your mouth full is required. (Yes, I was watching you through the mirrors…).

            And if I worried at all that any of this change would be bad or unsettling, I was comforted by the fresh flowers that still remain on the tables. One of my first glimpses of the behind the scenes workings of the hotel, they’re my landmark that everything runs smoothly, things are fine and everything old is new again.