Good Life

When time marches on, a smile stays in style

Ruth Hartman serves an event on Thursday at the Ramada Conference Center and Hotel in State College.
Ruth Hartman serves an event on Thursday at the Ramada Conference Center and Hotel in State College.

Ruth Hartman was barely a teenager in 1945, the end of World War II and the year the Chicago Cubs were last in the World Series.

When she started as a waitress at the then State College Holiday Inn, the Beatles were rocking, the Vietnam War was roaring and the moon landing was just a few years and a getting-shorter 238,855 miles away.

Time moved quickly then. Still fickle, it keeps bounding ahead, just out of reach.

But for the 84-year-old Hartman, it slowed to a halt about two months ago in Las Vegas’ Luxor, the famed pyramid on the more famous strip.

If there’s a place to stop time, it would be inside a pyramid in a city whose catchphrase is “What happens here, stays here.” Yet when Hartman’s name was announced as winner of the Wyndham Hotel Group Connect Back-of-the-House Award, a prestigious national honor, the moment was seared to memory, and the word spread. Another distinction, the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association Employee of the Year Award, soon followed.

“When they announced that, I’ll never forget it,” she said. “I knew then I did my job all these years.”

Half a century later, Hartman is still working banquets and weddings at the Ramada Conference Center and Hotel in State College, helping set up and tear down.

“I enjoy people,” she says, simply, and finds pleasure in the little things: cutting the cake for weddings, chatting with visiting football teams before Penn State games, taking her son, who has autism, to classes at Skills of Centre County.

A lot changes in 84 years. But Hartman’s joy at seeing faces both old and new has kept burning. It’s what she loves about her job, she says. When guests return, some remark: “ ‘I don’t believe you’re still here!’ ”

The Pine Grove Mills native, who prefers to work behind-the-scenes, says sometimes she can’t believe it herself. But on a warm Wednesday here in Happy Valley, Hartman, luminous as ever, reflected on a life and a career well spent.

Q: Take me back to winning the award in Las Vegas. What was your reaction?

A: (laughs) When I took first place I just doubled over and started crying.

Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned over your career?

A: One thing I’ve learned is respect. I respect the guests, the groups I do, my management. The saying is true: The guest is always right.

Q: How did management (General Manager Joe Thomas and Sales Director Jennifer Brooks-Stahl) relay the news of your award to you?

A: Actually they kept it quiet for three months. They surprised me and called me one day to see if I could work lunch. I was going to set up the room, but I didn’t know where it was. They said “come here, we want to show you something,” so they took me to the ballroom and all the employees were there and the management. Then it just hit me. And then they told me that I won the trip to Las Vegas.

Q: As a single mother to four children, how did you juggle personal responsibilities with your career?

A: It wasn’t perfect, but you take the bad with the good. My son is special needs and he is now 54, and so I do a lot of juggling. He goes to Skills, the workshop there, and he loves it. I had three daughters, too, and they’ve been a big help. When I would leave early, one of them would always make sure he got to his workshop.

I don’t know what I’d do without my son. He’s a very intelligent person. He knows the computer better than me. I don’t know how to even turn it on (laughs).

Q: I’d like to be able to still work when I’m 84. Any advice?

A: (laughs) Just keep moving. Keep active. Now I don’t run, nothing like that, but I keep busy.

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy