JANEEN DRISCOLL: We All Could Learn From Ralph's Example
Janeen Driscoll, communications manager at Pinehurst Resort, wrote this remembrance of Ralph Gacomo, a doorman and bellhop at the Carolina Hotel for 69 years, who died last Tuesday at age 96.
They don't make 'em like they used to.
In a world where pensions are gone, retirement benefits are a part of the past and there is no longer a reward for long-term corporate loyalty, the workers of my generation rarely see a need to stay in one place very long. It's just the way of the world these days.
We forget that Ralph Gacomo wasn't born into our era, even if he lived well into it. We rarely remember that like so many others, his family crossed the hard seas of the Atlantic on a boat to a new world, without knowing a word of the native tongue. Cattle herded into a building to be recorded, they weren't born with an automatic American stamp of approval. They braved it anyway -- because they knew they had to sacrifice for a better way of life.
I don't know of his upbringing, his story. But my imagination quickly runs to humble beginnings, hard work, physical labor. I can picture ethnic communities, kids playing in streets with sticks and balls, and great family gatherings. And corruption, discrimination, prejudice. It was a different world -- simpler, and harder. Just a boy, Ralph saw more by age 18 then some of us see in a lifetime.
Continue to take the journey with him, and you'll know that young Ralph moved here in 1929, the year of the Big Crash. The Depression became a harsh reality, a way of life. His family rebuilt again -- hard work, determination, and hope were called on one more time. He would begin his career at Pinehurst a short 10 years later.
He saw two world wars in his lifetime, remembering a homeland ravaged by one and an America forever changed by the next. He stood on the battlefields of the second, standing on a beach at D-Day, far away from his new home. He saw his own friends die alongside him and then came home to rebuild life. The hard way, again.
It shouldn't surprise us that he met his wife at the same place where he worked, and it couldn't surprise us that he worked hard. Very hard. He lifted heavy loads, as he had done his entire life. He came from an era in which pride was in the everyday job that you did, regardless of the location of your office. His strong work ethic gave him respect. You earned what you were given. I bet he fought for each tip -- and with good reason.
It was important that your shoes were shined, your shirt was pressed, your hair was combed. And you showed up ahead of time. Being a gentleman was not just expected, it was required in a civil society. I wonder when he stopped wearing a decent hat as he left the resort each day.
It wouldn't surprise me that Ralph would know most people by name when they walked into the grand Carolina Hotel. He lived in an era of strong community, of connecting your life to people, sharing in human commonality. His unerring memory of names and people had to be honed in part by ethnicity and his love to be around people -- and partly by survival instinct as well.
In his 69 years at Pinehurst, he lived to see both Bing Crosby and Anna Nicole Smith walk through the same set of doors. He knew Mr. Tufts and Mr. Ross, and they knew him. Ben Hogan to Jack Nicklaus to Payne Stewart -- all entered golf's rite of passage through his doorway.
Beyond the faces, Ralph saw America change -- from ball gowns to punk rock, hand-printed hotel registries to computers you could hold in your hand. I'll bet in the early years they didn't lock guest cars. I'm sure suitcases didn't have wheels. And I know their uniforms weren't just golf shirts and slacks.
I don't know if my imagination even comes close to the truth. But in working with him during my eight years at Pinehurst, there wasn't a time when I was in the lobby that he didn't say hello -- or a time when he wasn't standing at attention, hands folded behind his back.
Sometimes more than 60 years senior to his fellow coworkers and a full foot shorter than most, he always stood tall. I'm sure he taught quite a few what service really meant, and the way to do it right. He could beat a younger bellman to aid a good tipper until the day before he died, with an unerring eye and jaunty jingle in his pocket.
There wasn't a time where my heart didn't melt just a little at the sight of him in the Carolina. Here was a great man, a fighter with untold, unfailing strength. Not an old curmudgeon working way past his prime -- he was professional and a gentleman, in every way that counts.
If his pride in his job and this incredible resort gave him his longevity, then the company Kool-Aid must be OK, inviting us all to stay a little longer. I think it just might contain the fountain of youth.
We are at a loss without him here. The staff may come and go, but he left an indelible mark on Pinehurst. And now he's been added to the continuing story of this mystical place.
Nope. They just don't make 'em like they used to.
Janeen Driscoll can be reached at 235-8710 or by e-mail at Janeen.Driscoll@pinehurst.com.
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