Thursday, March 20, 2014

They still ask for him by name; the Sam Townsley story

Dyan Duncan


Sam Townsley
50 Year Employee
French Lick Springs Hotel
There is no way to know exactly how many guests Bell Captain Sam Townsley greeted in his 50 years with French Lick Springs Hotel. Conservatively, we are guessing somewhere in the ballpark of 61,000. Director of Golf Dave Harner thinks my estimate is way too conservative... "That wouldn't even touch it...thats only 1,200 a year...more like 6 million....in Sheraton days they had 80% occupacy. That's 320 rooms x 1.5 per room about 400 a day and if he worked 300 days in a year, thats 120,000." That's a lot of people!

So, of course, we agreed to help the Stone Bridge Health Campus in nearby Bedford to fulfill Sam's wish to visit one last time and see the hotel he called home, literally.  He lived on the hotel's second floor so that he could be on call 24 hours a day. That's just the kind of man he is.


Bellmen Uton and Carcel reminisce with
their mentor.
It's interesting to note that Sam started shortly after the infamous Derby weekend raid on illegal gambling in 1949, and retired the year before the new gaming license was awarded in 2005. So he was not around to see the completion of the $560 million dollar restoration of both French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs Hotels that has been dubbed "The Save of the Century." He still remembers the domed pool, the luggage conveyor and the Hoosier Room.

The "star of the show" getting interviewed
by Marketing Manager Steve Rondinaro.
Wheeled into the room with over 50 people awaiting his arrival, Sam was notably touched and immediately recognized a familiar face in the crowd. Pointing to 89 year-old Junior Carnes (who started at the resort when he was just 12 years old), he held up two fingers and said "We were like that" signaling their close bond. Junior remembers spending time with Sam between transportation runs. "That was back before we had radios and cell phones, so I had to come back to the hotel after each run. We spent a lot of time together."

Other memories came back as if they happened yesterday. Sam made everyone chuckle when he talked about boxer Joe Louis. Sam often trained right alongside Louis. That's not what he remembers most about the World Heavyweight Champion though. "I'd run up and down those hills training with him, but I never did beat him at pool!"

Long-time employees James Matthews (left), Bob Stiger
and Marilyn Kessler enjoyed catching up.
One of my favorite stories was shared by long-term employee Marilyn Kessler, who spent 32 years working in the bowling alley and then bartending later at Hagen's Club House Restaurant on the Donald Ross Course.  She talked about a couple from Jeffersonville who still comes every year. She said Mrs. Raymer would not accept the fact that the hotel would be closed for the restoration in  2005. "She wanted to bring a cot and sleep in the rubble," said Kessler. "They came anyway and invited my husband and myself, Sam, Stiger, Carissa and Derrick Miller and a few others to dinner in the Beechwood Mansion." Just down the road from the hotel, the mansion, which had been the personal residence of Ed Ballard, one-time owner of West Baden Springs Hotel, featured one of the −if not the− nicest restaurants in town.  

Children came up several times in the conversation, and each time you could see Sam's eyes light up with joy. He loved kids and really heeded the advice he got early on: take care of the kids and they will return with their kids. That is exactly what happened with families like the Ramers from Jeffersonville, Indiana, who continue to send Sam a Christmas card every year. "Return guests still ask for him by name," said Bob Stiger, who is celebrating his 52nd year with the resort. That fact is not taken lightly by Sam, "You'd be surprised that they don't forget ya."

Who could forget someone who gave his heart and soul to making sure each guest felt like they were his only guest? Certainly not us!