Many years ago, some friends joined me in buying a ranch in the high mountains of the central California coast. We weren't rich. We bought it to build our homes there and to do what each had always dreamed of doing. Some were going to paint, or write music, or throw pots, or sculpt. I was going to write several great American novels.
Most of our group did eventually paint, throw pots, write music, and sculpt. I never wrote a thing, except letters to raise money. Instead, I became the owner and operator of a hotel and restaurant. I was superbly equipped for this work, having absolutely no experience or training for it at all.
By the time my friends and I had built the place, staffed it, and started operating it, we were flying very high with no license to fly that high. And no way, I was assured, of ever paying back even the interest on the money we'd borrowed to get that far. One banker called it "a motel in the boonies no one will ever stay at."
Back then, we didn't know that what we were building would become one of the top 10 international destination resorts in America. I just focused on shaking hands, smiling a lot, and pretending I hadn't heard a thing when a waitress dropped a tray of dishes. And what do I remember most? Not the glamorous clients. I remember a few friends who made it all come true, and a few staff members who came to mean so much to me. Especially, I remember Sam.
Her name was Betty Lou, but she didn't like that name, so somehow she became Sam. She'd worked on the ranch for the former owners for years, and almost before the ink on the sales agreement was dry, they began to lean on me to keep Sam with us. It wasn't that Sam didn't have offers elsewhere, but she'd sort of grown up there. It was her home.
I wanted to be gracious. Also, it's not a good idea to get pioneer hill folks upset with you. I agreed to meet Sam. She was funny, warm, kind as could be, a middle-aged woman who had such a wonderful sense of goodness to her. Who wouldn't like Sam? So I asked her what she did at the ranch for the previous owners, and one of them quickly answered for her, "Oh, Sam is our bookkeeper."
We went into her office, and Sam opened a large roll-top desk where she said she worked. The top was stuck at first; something was jamming it, and then it went up very fast. Out fell a number of ledgers, paid and unpaid bills, and stacks of old check stubs. They fell in a heap on the floor, making a perfect silent statement: Bookkeeping was not an area Sam should pursue. She stood there, shaking, looking out a window, perhaps about to cry. I immediately laughed and suggested she might make a perfect waitress at our little roadside cafe. I knew it was not going to be possible to say goodbye to Sam. I already liked her a lot.
The next week we tried her as waitress, and I could hear the trembling cup rattling on its trembling saucer all the way to our table. It was hard not to laugh. The cup and saucer Sam carried very slowly across the cafe floor made more noise than our expensive new alarm system. We agreed that no, Sam was not a waitress either. Oh dear, what to do? I wanted to be practical. Bankers were watching me with Stealth overflights, it felt. Yet I found it impossible to say goodbye to Sam. So I didn't. I said "hello" or "good morning" to her.
The answer was a cinch, really. Sam's greatest talent was her character. Everyone liked her so much that all we had to do was ask her to buy a new dress, stick some menus under her arm, and Sam greeted everyone at the restaurant door. She was an instant hit. Later, she was a manager in the restaurant and supervised the serving staff.
In many food and beverage operations, it is fear that seems to rule. "I hope they never lose their fear of me," Gen. George Patton was supposed to have said about the troops he commanded in North Africa in World War II. That thought never crossed Sam's mind. No one was afraid of her at all. In fact, everyone liked her so much that they did better jobs just to be sure they didn't let Sam down.
Sam was loyal to the core, honest ... well, honest in everything but desserts. She was a striking woman, tall and attractive, so her dessert passion didn't reveal itself at first. But one night a waiter told Sam that the boss could see her polishing off another slice of chocolate cream pie because my table, closest to the swinging doors into the kitchen, gave me a perfect view of her joyfully decimating the pie on the dessert cart. She came to me in tears.
Once again, what was I going to do with Sam?
I asked her to rotate her desires so that guests could have a wider selection, and to keep in mind that it was a kind of theft to eat desserts beyond her complimentary staff meals. She said, through tears, that she'd never thought of it that way and swore it would never happen again. As far as I know, it never did. Food "slippage," a nice word used to describe staff taking steaks out the back door, dropped dramatically. Not only was Sam's eagle eye now upon them all, but that sort of thing ended when Sam ended her dessert-napping. She set the example.
Years later, an unusual tribute to Sam occurred in an unexpected way. She was having some kind of physical problem, I learned. Something about her heart. Now if there is one thing that Sam never needs to worry about, I thought, it is her heart. Her great heart of love was so perfect.
A blizzard of calls and letters poured in from guests who loved her, friends, investors, some of our bankers, locals, staff, and uncounted others. One important investor called me, insisting he be allowed to fly Sam to his specialist, all expenses paid. It went on like that for some time. I told Sam it would be cheaper for everyone if she just got better. She did. Eventually her physical problem was gone. But not the love Sam inspired; that surrounded her.
Sam retired recently, after about 25 years. She had outlasted most of us, and turned out to be the single most important human resource we ever had. Sam was the center and symbol of our inn. When I think of those happy years, I always think first of Sam, and smile. It's a smile of gratitude for her compassion, her friendship, her loving, forgiving, kindly nature. Her goodness, among so much else. Gratitude also that I listened to the right voice inside me in those early days, and found a place for Sam.