Unabridged Bonus Years Column from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday, November 17, 2019
Readers of this space know I’m a fan of “experience gifts” – i.e., instead of gifting stuff gift an experience such as an airplane ticket or a Netflix subscription.
Experience gifts are especially suitable for those in their bonus years, as they downsize and minimize, getting rid of much of the stuff they have accumulated over the years.
Hence, I was not surprised when our adult children decided to give us an experience gift. It happened last Spring when my wife and I celebrated our birthdays – Mary Sue in early April and my own in early May. Our adult kids gave us a “150th Birthday Celebration” – where the 150 referred to our combined circumnavigations of the Sun.
We were gifted two nights and three days at the historic Biltmore House and Gardens in Asheville, North Carolina.
We invoked our experience gift this past week during a memorable visit to Asheville and the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate, where the centerpiece is a stunning 250-room mansion, a National Historic Landmark and still America’s largest home with priceless collections of art, books and tapestries – and 75 acres of strolling gardens.
After six years in construction, George Washington Vanderbilt – grandson of shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt – opened the Biltmore House and Gardens in 1895. It was forever the family home for George, his wife Edith and their daughter Cornelia.
We enjoyed an awe-inspiring and educational three days. In addition to the French Renaissance-style chateau, breathtaking tapestries and magnificent gardens, there was a person. His name is Bert Miller, the 84-year-old doorman during our stay at The Inn on the Biltmore Estate, our home away from home during our visit.
It was a beautiful but nippy day when we arrived. Miller sported a welcoming smile as he stood by the door, decked out in black doorman’s attire, looking very proper but also very human, blowing into his gloves to keep his hands warm, as he opened the door, ushering us into the lobby to check in.
Over the next three days, I spent as much time as I could talking to Miller – including one long discussion in the lounge after his six-hour shift was over. That’s when I learned the answer to how to a lively, good-looking, affable guy, age 84, with a great sense of humor found his way to the door of The Inn on the Biltmore Estate.
It turns out Miller’s current career comes after three failed retirements. “I love working here. I love this property, the people I meet and the people I work with. If I get too fragile to continue as doorman, I’ll go inside and fold napkins.”
When I asked his secret to a joyful longevity, he said, “I’ll tell you what it is. Just keep working. You have to stay in touch with people, help people. You have to use whatever you’ve got until you can’t do it anymore. It’s like that oldie, ‘Street of Dreams’ with Stan Kenton and June Christy, where you can always make things work.”
Miller’s optimism about life and staying engaged reminded me of Gandhi’s observation that “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Miller was born in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, in 1936, the youngest of five boys. Miller’s dad worked down the road at Hershey’s Chocolate for 44 years, as did Bert and his brothers.
After his military service, Miller earned his baccalaureate in elementary education at Millersville State College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1960 and his master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965 – and then went on to teach the 5th and 6th grades in Philadelphia schools.
Miller, also the father of five sons, said “I retired from education when our fourth child came along, which stretched my $3,800 annual salary to the limit. So, I left public schools in 1968 to join the education products group at Xerox, where I worked until 1988.”
After Xerox, Miller moved to Raleigh, NC where he managed 280 apartment units. He retired for the third time in 2006, when the apartments were sold
Miller, then age 70, moved to Asheville and retired “for good”. But not really. He was bored and restless – a problem noticed by a daughter-in-law. So, one night at dinner with his son and daughter-in-law, she handed him an application – already filled out – for a job at The Inn at the Biltmore.
He joined The Inn in 2007 at age 71, a job he has held for 12 years – and counting. Miller said, “Growing up, I worked hard all the time. I’ll work as long as I can.” Adding, mischievously, “I check the obits every morning. If my name’s not there, I shave and go to work.”
When we bid farewell to Bert Miller and The Inn last Tuesday, I thought of Walt Disney’s advice to his managers and employees at one of the world’s most successful destination resorts, “Do what you do so well that they want to see it again – and bring their friends.”
I will never forget Bert Miller, and I will return to The Biltmore House and Gardens at least one more time, not the least to see Miller and the special insights he gave me about a very special place – where doors are opened and guests welcomed by a very special person.