Tuesday, March 01, 2011


‎"The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real." ~Marge Piercy

Photo: Some rights reserved by Mickipedia Photo by Alex Johnson in New York City subway. Micki Krimmel's wonderful Mickipedia site. Okay the message of the photo is: "Use less." But I've been feeling awfully useless lately and that's what's been on my mind.

I live with my elderly father. In the USA women are disproportionately the care givers. There are probably a quite a few people who think that because that's the case, men must really suck at being care givers. Alas, that stereotype probably hold true for me, but it's not for lack of trying. It's not an easy thing when someone who has always been strong is now frail.

Anyhow something my father and I do together several times a year is to attend Pittsburgh Symphony concerts. Several years ago he passed out at one of the concerts and left in an ambulance. Every time we go I try to figure out how to make the whole excursion as easy on him as I can. There are probably ways of making it much easier than we do, for example there is an elevator, but getting my father to use it is a whole 'nother kettle of fish. So I pause on the stair landings and point to the architecture. My father always gives me a look that says, "What the heck are you doing?" but I never mention what I'm doing is to let him catch his breath. Being out of breath is exactly the sort of thing a once strong man never notices or wants to be noticed.

This Sunday's program was quite interesting. The program was Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68; Concerto No1 in C major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 15; and Leonore Overture No. 3, Op 72A. What really interested me in reading the program was the performances were dedicated to the memory of Vince Calloway the long serving doorman at the performance hall who had died this past October.

The write-up in the program notes seemed understated. Towards the end of it I read:
Born on Nov. 21, 1924 in Roberta, GA, Calloway was one of five children. He received an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1946 and received his bachelor's degree from Carnegie (Tech) Mellon. He worked at Westinghouse in West Mifflin for 42 years before retiring in 1992. He married his wife Marie in August 1951. They had five children.
Westinghouse has a storied history in Pittsburgh and as a corporation. The mention of "Westinghouse in West Mifflin" has a particular meaning, the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory. I turned to my father and read the paragraph to him, pointing out the guy was a nuclear engineer.

Vincent Calloway was a nuclear engineer for about as long as he was doorman at the Heinz Hall with a good many of the years overlapping. It's a nice thing he'll be long remembered by the Pittsburgh Symphony. But "nuclear engineer" seems on its face more prestigious than "doorman" and it's the latter he'll be most remembered for.

In 2001 the Pittsburgh Symphony gave Calloway a Customer Service Excellence Award, in fact they named the award after him. Here's a bio for one of the orchestra's violists. Her bio mentions that she received the Vince Calloway Award for her work using music with critically ill cancer patients. The Pittsburgh Symphony takes the award seriously.

I got the idea from the dedication of the program to him, and a little plaque the Pittsburgh Symphony unveiled this weekend, that they really loved the guy and miss him terribly. But the write-up left me a little unclear as to why he'd made such an impression: He will be remembered for "his good humor, kindness, independence, generosity and dedication" sounded a little bit canned, or just faint praise.

I had noticed Vincent Calloway at the door over the years. I'm afraid over the last few years when I saw him my mind was always racing trying to imagine if somehow I could convince my father to allow me to drop him off at the door while I parked the car. I wondered if that guy in the scarlet coat and cap could get my cranky father who doesn't want help from anybody through the door? I never tested it, but the Vince Calloway always had a nice smile on his face for us as he held the door for us, so I do remember smiling back at him. And the answer to my question was almost certainly, "Yes." Calloway was only a few years younger than my dad, and getting cranky old people through the door was exactly what he was especially good at. The vice president of the Symphony said:
He was someone patrons got to know and, as they got older, depended on him. He would always be there for them.
I was curious to see whether the newspaper had done a news obituary for him when he died. I didn't find one, but did see his online guestbook. He was known for giving away candy and food. One of the Heinz Hall ushers wrote that he probably didn't know it at the time but the food he gave her was so appreciated because it was a time she didn't have enough money to buy enough to eat. Another person remembered how she first met Calloway when she was in the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony and then how proud he was of her when she won a spot playing in the Pittsburgh Symphony. There were little vignettes about how he managed to make sure ushers found their way safely home after work. The picture emerges of a man who was kind to both grandees and humble workers alike.

We think that being kind is what we ought to be, so kindness often seems hardly noticed, or even an afterthought. What was so remarkable about Vincent Calloway was his kindness, but just saying he was kind doesn't quite capture the difference he made to quite a large number of people. Just as saying: "He was a real dignified gentleman." doesn't cut the mustard. But how else to describe someone exquisitely kind?

It's rare for the Pittsburgh Symphony to dedicate programs to people. Maybe I just haven't noticed, but in the many years of attending concerts I can only think of one other time the Pittsburgh Symphony has honored someone like this, and that was to honor one of the most generous patrons of the orchestra. Pittsburghers are very proud of our symphony. And I feel proud of the organization for honoring their long-time doorman.

I can only guess about the story from Calloway's perspective. Given the timing and knowing he had five kids, I suspect he started out just to earn a bit of cash to help out with the expenses of putting his kids through college. Somewhere along the line he made the job of doorman mean much more than anyone expected that job ought to mean. He made the job real by making sure others knew they were important. His job was to be kind and what a difference he made. Sometimes the most useful gestures are simple ones, a smile, a little treat, a sympathetic ear, or a ride home in the dark. Vincent Calloway's life is a lesson not so much about the dignity of work, but rather the importance of being of use. We all can be of use.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

yes i saw this plaque and found your writeup on google.