By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
When 64-year-old Bobby Whittemore walked into the Skylight Room at Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant on Wednesday, he expected another employee meeting.
That morning, cook Bruce Alcorn told Whittemore, “They’re going to complain and talk about how dishwashers are not doing their job, and you need to stand up and say something.”
Around 3 p.m., Whittemore showed up for the “meeting” and strolled past the streamers, balloons and table of gifts (including a 42-inch TV) and made his way to a chair in the back of the room.
Alcorn, his co-worker of 38 years, said, “Hey Bobby, turn around and take a look at that.”
The cook pointed at a white sign that said, “Thank you, Bobby, for 45 years of service...” in blue letters between two large silver balloons, one in the shape of a 4 and another shaped like a 5.
“Bobby turned around and did a double-take,” said Gary McCormack, general manager.
All day, people had been sneaking in cake, gifts and decorations to celebrate Whittemore’s 45 years at Boone Tavern, his first and only job.
Of the more than 40 employees, no one ruined the surprise and everyone took part.
“It was neat to see that — we just have this love for him,” McCormack said.
About a month ago, Whittemore approached the general manager and said, “I’m leaving next month, Mr. McCormack. I’ve never left a job before, I just want to make sure I’m doing this right.”
In 1967, there were few job options for a Berea teenager, said Whittemore, a 1966 graduate of Madison Central High School.
Whittemore lived outside the city limits, so he was unable to attend Berea City School and Madison Southern High School didn’t yet exist.
During summer breaks, he washed dishes for Boone Tavern and returned there after he graduated to continue the same work.
He considered looking for a job in Lexington, but Whittemore figured extra time spent traveling would be time he didn’t get paid.
“An hour there, an hour back — that’s 10 hours and you don’t get paid for two of them,” he said. “It wasn’t worth it to me, so I just stayed here.”
He took the job at Boone Tavern, just a little less than three miles from his home on Gabbardtown Road, where he was born and raised.
Richard T. Hougen, manager of Boone Tavern from 1940-76, started Whittemore at “a dollar and a nickel an hour,” he said. But through a stroke of luck, he got a nickel-an-hour raise less than two weeks later.
Hougen hired another employee and started him at $1.10, Whittemore said. “But instead of cutting him, he raised me a nickel.”
Early on, Whittemore was moved to day shift, leaving him little time to come in contact with the many spirits ghost hunters claim to have detected in the 103-year-old hotel during weekends organized by Ghost Chasers International Inc.
During his 45 years, Whittemore has never seen a ghost, he said. “I’m not saying they don’t have them, but I ain’t ever seen any. I reckon they’re afraid of me.”
Which is just as well, because Whittemore said he’s going to miss his live co-workers a lot.
As for the job, “everybody gets tired of working,” he said, but he loved the job more than he hated it.
Yet, as far as he’s concerned, he’s never washing another dish ever again.
The now retired Bobby Whittemore plans to only use disposable dishes and maybe go to some car auctions with his brother-in-law.
“I told him if it wasn’t too hot or too cold, I’ll go some times — just to have something to do,” Whittemore said.
Next to the 42-inch TV on the gift table sat a new watch, a plaque, a farewell card full of signatures and a pack of batteries to power a remote-control race car.
Whittemore can “tell you anything about NASCAR,” McCormack said, explaining the race car gift.
Next to the table was a rocking chair presented to him by Chef Jeff Newman.
Co-workers gathered around Whittemore to shake his hand and wish him a happy retirement.
During a conversation with operations manager Charlie Hart, Whittemore revealed that his grandfather used to make furniture for Berea College. Some of his grandfather’s handiwork likely sat on Boone Tavern’s front porch when it opened in 1909.
“That’s something we never knew about Bobby,” Hart said.
But what they did know about Whittemore was that he took pride in his work.
Over the years, he taught many Berea College students how to appreciate the value of a job, McCormack said, “and in his own humble way, he tried to teach them the right skills.”
He never overcomplicated things, he always completed his work and he never raised his voice or cursed, according to McCormack.
“Bobby has probably washed millions of dishes, but he always did it the best he possibly could,” his manager said. “We were just really blessed to have him.”
Crystal Wylie can be reached at cwylie
or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.