Eric's Heroes: John Reed, the doorman and memory keeper of The Davenport Hotel
SPOKANE, Wash. -- It's 6:30 in the morning in downtown Spokane. The streets are relatively quiet.
The underground parking lot right next to the Davenport Hotel is almost empty. There is a parking spot there with a sign in front of it. The sign says, "Reserved For John Reed." It is the best parking spot in the lot.
The headlights of a green Subaru turn the corner slowly and roll into the spot.
Out climbs an elderly man, bald with black suspenders over a white shirt and a shy, unassuming smile.
He walks deliberately to the back of the car and pulls out a walker. He puts a single banana into the compartment under the seat and starts walking.
The Davenport Hotel was built in 1913. It was the first hotel in the United States with air conditioning. The first Crab Louis was created and served there. Young Bing Crosby played in a band at the hotel. And, the place was stunningly, opulently, classically beautiful.
There were arched columns and fine woodwork and stained-glass panels in the ceiling. There were leather couches in the lobby with wood-burning fires and big, eye-candy ballrooms with names like the Marie Antoinette, the Isabella and the Elizabethan.
John Reed pours himself a glass of water in the downstairs Davenport break room. He sits down, as he does at this time every day, as he has for many, many years and relaxes. He takes a sip of water and looks down, as if he's trying hard to remember something important. And you wonder if he's thinking about his life and the hotel, and how the two have been intertwined seemingly for an eternity.
I met Jerry Lewis once. It was at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He asked me where I was from.
"Spokane," I said.
He smiled. "Ah, Spokane, Washington," he said. "Davenport Hotel. Best hotel I ever stayed at."
At 6:55 John Reed stands up slowly, a little shakily, and leans against his walker for a moment. Then he picks up a black top hat and places it gently atop his head, like he's adding the star to the top of a Christmas tree.
Next he picks up a bright red coat with epaulets on the shoulder and a crest over the breast pocket, and he pulls it over his shoulders.
He buttons his striped vest and adjusts his tie.
At two minutes till 7 he is moving again behind his walker.
It's time to work.
'Welcome to the Davenport'
The walls of this place, The Davenport, carry reminders of a different time. Large black and white photos in old frames of balls and dances and decadent parties in the '20's and '30's. Happy, young faces smile out from behind black tuxedos and evening gowns as if they secretly knew they would live forever, that the parties would never end.
The pictures are mesmerizing. There is one with a huge Maypole set up in the lobby, with hundreds of people crowded around it. And in one picture of a formal dinner, every tuxedoed- and evening-gowned guest is wearing a pointed children’s hat folded out of newspaper.
You can roam the halls here for hours and marvel at what must have been an exquisite, elegant time.
John Reed places his right arm on the golden handle of the front entrance door of The Davenport.
He pushes it open as a man approaches from the outside with a suitcase.
"Good morning, sir," he smiles. "Welcome to The Davenport."
It is a scene that will play out hundreds of times before the day is finished.
"Good morning, gentlemen! Have a good day."
Each time there is the stately smile and the kindly nod.
"Good morning, how are you today?"
John Reed is the doorman at The Davenport.
A lifetime at the hotel
He grew up in Sandpoint, Idaho. "I was a little old country boy," he says now, "never been around a city much."
He walked into The Davenport when he was 13 years old and asked for a job as a bus boy.
I ask him what it was like the first time he walked in, and he doesn't hesitate. "Absolutely beautiful."
He got the job. They paid him 35 cents an hour. It was June 1, 1942. There was a war going on.
John Reed, the lovely man at the door in the top hat and coat, has been working at The Davenport Hotel for 75 years.
A group of women is walking out, perhaps to a business meeting.
"Have a good day," says John as he pushes the door open. The women smile and say, "Thank you so much!"
A man approaches the door walking fast. "Good morning, sir..." The man says nothing and keeps walking.
In between the comings and goings of guests, John leans against the golden door handle. The walker is put away when he's working.
I wonder out loud if he ever gets lonely standing there.
He smiles knowingly like a teacher to a wide-eyed child. He shakes his head no. "There's always somebody coming by," he says, in that sweet, patient way of his.
We're sitting in a ballroom that's so beautiful you can't help but keep looking around in wonder.
I ask John what this place has meant to his life.
He thinks for a moment. "Uh, it's been my WHOLE life."
And he means it.
The ghosts that float the halls of The Davenport are dressed to the nines, waltzing in 3/4 time for all eternity in opulent ballrooms, with music and laughter and grace all about.
I imagine that John knows them all by name, that they swirl about him, illuminating his memories of glorious parties that seemed like they would last forever, filled with handsome men and beautiful women and the finest silver and the best booze, punctuated always by interesting conversation and robust, contagious laughter. And it was happening at HIS hotel. HIS place. Gatsby as a busboy. And then a doorman. Through the years, down the long mahogany wooded hallways of time.
He likes to think about those days. He likes to tell the stories.
"How was your stay, sir?"
"Chilly out there today, isn't it?"
"When you came to The Davenport, back then you came dressed up," he says, when I ask him to remember.
He pauses and shakes his head a little.
"Nothing like it is now."
He's back in the Isabella ballroom now, and the reflection of his coat and hat shine up at him from a highly polished floor.
"I have a lot of respect for this building. I look down at these floors, I've mopped them I don't know how many times. And to sit here right now, it's bringing back a lot of good memories."
The Dark Years
But there were dark times, too, in this place that this little man loves so dearly.
Mr. Davenport sold his hotel in 1945, and died at his suite in the hotel in 1951.
The place was bought. And sold. And bought. And sold.
John remembers short-term owners looting the place, hauling out chandeliers and fine furniture, taking everything that wasn't nailed down.
When I was a kid my dad used to tell me stories about the "old Davenport," about the amazing beauty and class of the place. He said that when you sat in that lobby on those leather couches with the fire burning you felt like a king.
But he never took me there. Not once.
He said it was but a shadow of its former self, that it had fallen on hard times, and he refused to set foot in it.
"It's not the same," was all he said.
The Davenport was closed in 1985. Shut down. Locked up. There was talk that it would be demolished.
It stayed that way for 17 long years. Shuttered and dark.
There was one living reminder of better times, though.
His name was John Reed.
John stayed on as the caretaker of the once grand hotel. He maintained the place. Watched over it like a sentry, like a quiet reminder. Waiting.
Sitting now surrounded by its re-born legendary beauty, I ask John the obvious question.
"How come you didn't leave?" I say.
He stops for a moment. His eyes moisten just a little.
"I couldn't," he says quietly, and then, "My heart was here in this building."
The doors swings. "Good morning sir, have a good day."
He was married for many years, but his wife passed away some time ago.
He lives alone. There's a new refrigerator in his place that Davenport management gave to him on one of his anniversaries. He keeps only two things in it: gin and tonic.
Now 87 years old, he works four eight-hour shifts a week.
"It's a humble profession that you have," I say.
He nods. "Yes it is."
"Do you consider yourself a humble man?"
He nods again and smiles that smile. "I bring a lot of smiles to a lot of people. and that's what I'm looking for. And they always look forward to me, with a smile, opening the door for them. Men and women. And kids."
"As long as they'll have me, I'll be here"
They held a celebration at the hotel for John this summer. It was his 75th anniversary at the hotel. There were politicians there, and the entire Davenport staff, and a couple TV stations. They named a board room on the second floor after him. He seemed honored and pleased by it all.
They told him that on this day he would dine in style, in the lobby, surrounded by all the beauty and elegance.
John just smiled and politely declined.
"Thank you," he said, "but I eat down in the break room."
A man named Walt Worthy, and his wife, Karen, purchased the entire block where The Davenport sits in March of 2000. They spent the next two years of their lives and $38 million of their own money to make The Davenport grand once again.
They succeeded in dazzling, tasteful, eye-popping fashion. Jerry Lewis and my dad and everybody else who ever wandered the hallways and ballrooms in open-mouthed awe would have been struck dumb.
The Davenport was reborn in 2002, and there manning the front door in a red coat and top hat was John Reed, with a gentle smile and a warm greeting.
"People say, 'Are you ever going to retire?' I say, 'No. As long as they'll have me, I'll be here. ' " John Reed found his place in the world when he was 13 years old, and was smart enough to never leave.
It doesn't look like he'll ever have to.
"John has a job for as long as he wants to come down and help us," says Walt Worthy. "He is absolutely always going to be welcome at the hotel."
And so the doorman has become a legend. And the ghosts dance about him, dressed to the nines, waltzing in 3/4 time for all eternity, with music and laughter and grace all about.
Why wouldn't they? He's the only one left who recognizes them.
Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.