Column #140 - July 15, 2001

by Glenn Tunney

         The teenager kept his eyes closed and sleepily rolled onto his side, trying to get comfortable on the hard bench.  It was after midnight and quiet in the lobby of the Monongahela Hotel.  He needed this cat nap, since he was on duty as night clerk from midnight until eight, then he would walk to Brownsville High School for a full day of classes.
         A Blainesburg boy, young Jim Vecheck had attended East Pike Run High School the previous year.  But Brownsville High School offered courses that East Pike Run didn't provide, so Jim took the hotel job in exchange for free room and meals.  By living in the hotel he could avoid Brownsville school district's non-resident tuition fees.
         Finally comfortable on the bench, Jim soon fell fast asleep.
         Until he heard the rumble, that is.  At first the noise was part of his dream, but it got louder and louder.  When the rumble became deafening, his eyes popped open, and right there in the lobby before him, three men were boldly pushing the hotel safe towards the front door!
         Jim jumped from the bench and yelled, "Hey!"  The startled thieves abandoned the safe and darted out the front door, escaping as the shaken teenager shouted for help.  After things had calmed down, the heavy safe was lugged back to where it belonged.
        Any idea of a cat nap was now forgotten.  Just wait until the other clerks hear about this, Jim thought as he nervously shuffled papers behind the front desk.  Jeannie Eastman, Charlie Roach, Joe Harvey, Mrs. Shelton.  They would never believe it!
         Sixty years later, Jim Vecheck lives in Hanover, Maryland.  He recently recalled, "The unique thing about being on midnight shift at the Monongahela Hotel was to always expect the unexpected.  One winter night a gentleman arrived around two a.m. and hurriedly asked for a room.  He handed me a good bit of money, and I told him I would put it in the safe for him.  I was about to show him to his room when I noticed that he had no shoes on!  At that point I told him I had mistakenly rented him a room that was already taken.  I apologized, and he left sadly into the winter night.  I called the police because I feared for his safety, only to be informed later that he was an escaped mental patient!"
         Another fellow who went to school during the day and to work at the hotel after classes dismissed was Lou Opall.  Now of Ostersund, Sweden, Lou hired on as a bellboy in 1951.  By then the hotel had changed hands and was known as the Earle Hotel.
         "I applied for a job as bellboy," Lou told me, "at the suggestion of my grandfather's brother, Sam Smith, who worked at the bar adjoining the hotel.  The Earle Milner chain had recently taken over the hotel, and the new manager, Mr. Rizzo, hired me.
         "The job fit in well with my school schedule.  I worked from four in the afternoon until nine at night showing guests to their rooms, operating the elevator and taking responsibility for the switchboard when the desk clerk was busy."
         Operating that elevator took practice.
          "The elevator was the manual sort," explained Lou, "with a handle that you pulled back to go up, pushed forward to go down.  The trick was to stop even with the floor, and it took practice to slow down and glide softly to a stop so the guests didn't have to step up or down to exit."
         Jim Vecheck, who also started as a bellhop, said, "I worked at the hotel from 1942 until I graduated from high school in 1945.  My fellow bellhops were Tom and Ray Olesky and Lou Dreon, and we were constantly mopping the hotel's marble floors.  The men's room had coin- operated stalls, and we all had keys to the coin boxes.  We would use the dimes to go to the Plaza, Bison or Strand to see a movie!"
        Jim continued, "There were some full-time residents at the hotel.  One of them was a fellow who would run up tremendous bar tabs, and we were told to cater to him at any expense.  He was an older gentleman who couldn't navigate the stairs, and he would bang on the elevator button constantly, causing it to ring and annoy everyone in the hotel.  After an evening in the bar, he would say to me, "Jimmy, I'm ready to go home."   That meant I had to get him up to his room and open his door, a slow trip that could take thirty minutes.  As soon as I came back downstairs, the elevator would start ringing, and he would show up and head back to the bar!
         "After a while he would wear out the staff's nerves, so we figured out a way to keep him upstairs.  I would disable the elevator and it would fly up to its safety latch at the top of the shaft.  This required calling in a repairman, and that took a day or two and gave us some respite!"
         Eventually bellhops got the chance for promotion.
          "After a few weeks as a bellhop," said Lou Opall, "I was becoming more at home at the hotel.  One evening the night clerk came on duty and seemed a little under the weather. He asked me to watch the desk while he rested, and trailing a strong scent of bourbon, he retired.  I called him several times during the night, but he was never able to respond.  So I stoked the furnace, did the bookkeeping and closed the register in time to greet the manager, Mr. Rizzo, when he came down for work in the morning.  He was pleased that I had finished the night and thanked me.  It was after 7 a.m., and I had just enough time to wash, change into school clothes, and walk up the hill to my eleventh grade classes.
        "The next afternoon when I arrived for work, Mr. Rizzo asked if I was interested in taking over as night clerk until they were able to replace the one they'd just fired.  I said yes and became one of the youngest night clerks in the country.  My ‘temporary' position lasted for two years."
         Being night clerk meant making occasional trips to the hotel's huge basement.
         "When I worked there in the early 1940's," commented Jim Vecheck, "the basement housed the laundry, the restrooms, a leather shop where gloves were made, the huge coal furnace with an automatic stoker, and plenty of storage space."
          Lou Opall added, "My main problem was with the furnace in the cellar, both finding the right time to leave the desk unmanned and getting the thing to work as it should.  I would fire it up about four in the morning to assure hot water for the early risers, but no matter how closely I monitored the gauge, the water was either too warm or too cold!"
         "One unique part of my responsibilities when I became night clerk," remarked Jim, "was to receive teletype messages at the Western Union office behind the front desk.  I earned ten cents per message received, and I did the cutting and pasting of the teletype strips.  I will always remember receiving those dreaded telegrams from the War Department that always started with the same sad line -- ‘We regret to inform you that your son has been killed in action.'  Those messages were passed on to clergymen for personal delivery."
         Both men agreed that the most vibrant part of the hotel was the lobby.
         "The lobby was an interesting place," said Jim.  "People would sit down at the big front window to watch a very active Brownsville.  There was a large brass railing below the window for your feet, giving you a front row seat to watch the occasional automobile accident or maybe a streetcar that couldn't stop!"
         When Lou Opall hired on a decade later, the lobby was still the place to be.
          "The lobby was the center of the social life of the hotel," Lou observed.  "As you entered, the Western Union office was on the left, with a bright, cheerful woman behind the desk. I don't recall her name, but she seemed to know everyone in town, and she had a view through the large window on the north side of the lobby.  She kept me informed of the doings at the Union Station, the streetcar stop, Orelli's and Ricco's restaurants, Winner's Jewelers and the flower shop, all right across the street.
         "Along the right side of the lobby were five or six overstuffed chairs and the door leading into the bar.  The lobby chairs were occupied continually by guests or townspeople wanting to get out of the cold, the rain, or just out of the house.  I never questioned their reasons, and my only rule was that they couldn't sleep there.  If they kept their foot moving, they could stay as long as they liked.  Some of them spent the whole shift with me."
         Did Lou enjoy the years he worked at the Monongahela Hotel?
         "I worked from seven in the evening until seven in the morning,"  he said, "seven days a week.  It didn't help my social life any, but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything I've done since.  My friends all envied me, except for the hours I worked.  It was a good experience for me as a young kid, learning the facts of life there."
         Bellhops and night clerks, bartenders, cooks and waitresses have all shared their memories of the Monongahela Hotel with us.   Next week, our series will conclude with a look back at the owners of the Monongahela Hotel and at the folks who called it their home.

Readers may call me at 724-785-3201, e-mail me at or write me at 6068 National Pike East, Grindstone, PA   15442.  

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