Award-winning busboy dishes up hospitality

| March 13, 2012 | 0 Comments

Joseph Skluzacek has been working as a busboy for the Boulevard Café inside the Ramada Inn in Bloomington for the last 22 years. He was honored in Bloomington March 11 at the Diamond Service Awards with a Hall of Fame Award. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

After enjoying lunch at the Boulevard Café inside the Ramada Inn in Bloomington, long-time customer Kim Hislop got up and walked over to the table where Lucille and Ed Skluzacek of St. Richard in Richfield were seated.

Hislop wanted to exchange words with Lucille about the way she was treated by Lucille’s son, Joseph, a busboy at the restaurant whose job is merely to clear the dishes away once a customer has left.

Ordinarily, busboys are only briefly seen by patrons, and rarely heard. Joseph, however, is different. And, that’s the message Hislop delivered to his mother.

“I’m a frequent guest here at the hotel and I hadn’t been down in a couple of years,” said Hislop, who lives in south Minneapolis. “And, when I came into the café [on this occasion], Joseph just lit up and said, ‘Welcome back; it’s so good to see you.’ He’s a real sweetie.”

A handful of contest judges in Bloomington agree and voted to award him the Bloomington Hospitality Hall of Fame Award. It’s one of 18 awards given annually in March at a banquet put on by the Bloomington Convention and Visitors Bureau. They are called Diamond Service Awards, and at least one program official says they are tough awards to win.

Winning beyond words

“We have 400 nominations every year,” said award committee chair Jim Saccoman, general manager at the Radisson Hotel Bloomington near the Mall of America, who noted that Joe won the award for best bus person in 2008.?“And, we interview every one of them in panel interviews — two judges [each] in two interviews.”

Those interviews are not easy for people like Joe. He has Down syndrome, and people have to listen carefully to understand what he is trying to say.

But, one of his greatest expressions needs no explanation — his infectious smile.

It flashed when he wanted to show a small group around his table how he can grab and hold five glasses with one hand. With ease and dexterity, he quickly gathered the glasses and snatched them into the air.

“I’ve got a strong grip,” he said, to anyone who might doubt that fact. “I do exercise.”

And, before scurrying off to the kitchen with his take, he flashed his trademark grin and pointed to his impressive biceps, no doubt developed over 22 years of busing tables at the café.

A daunting task he recently faced was putting those biceps — and the rest of his stocky frame — into a tuxedo to receive his award at the banquet?March 11. Just four days before the event, he already was trying to put himself into the proper frame of mind.

“I want to be calm and relaxed,” he said, before taking a long breath and offering one word for how he hoped his trip to the podium would be:?“Easy.”

Rough road to travel

Joe’s nearly five decades of life have been anything but easy, beginning with the day he was born, March 18, 1961, a day after St. Patrick’s Day and a day before the feast of St. Joseph, hence his given name, Joseph Patrick.

He is the youngest of five children, and his next oldest sister, Missy, suffered brain damage and entered life as a mentally challenged person.

Thus, one of the pediatricians who saw Lucille right after Joe was born offered what she likely believed was practical advice to the new mother. But, this doctor’s directive was perceived as unthinkable for Lucille, who has spent much of her adult life being a tireless advocate not only for Joe, but for others with disabilities.

“When he was born, the pediatrician said to leave him at the hospital and not take him home,”?Lucille, 83, recalled. “She said, ‘Your son is “mongol,” and if I were you, I’d let him [stay] at the hospital.’

And, I said, ‘I know how to take care of a baby. This is my fifth child.’”

Lucille has been battling on Joe’s behalf ever since. It motivated her to help form a local chapter of an international group for mentally challenged persons called Faith and Light. Founded by Canadian Cath­o­lic philosopher Jean Vanier in 1968, it’s an international movement in which people with developmental disabilities, their families and friends meet regularly to discuss hopes and difficulties and to pray together.

Mass for persons with disabilities set for March 17An annual Mass for people with disabilities is set for 9 a.m. Saturday, March 17, at St. Edward in Bloomington. Confession is available at 8:30 a.m., and a free brunch follows the Mass.

Further support is available through the Outreach to Persons with disAbilities of the archdiocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Life. The coordinators are Deacon Sean and Joan Curtan. Contact them at (651) 291-4543 or curtans@archspm.org.

For more information about Faith and Light, visit http://www.faithandlight.org, or call Fred Seagren at (952) 835-6721 or (612) 578-4055.

Path to independent living

Lucille said the group has provided much-needed support for her, Joe and the family. In fact, the group helped her step back and allow her son to live independently, which he has done for 20 years.

With income from his part-time job — plus generous tips that he dutifully records in a notebook — he has been able to not only survive on his own, but travel both across the U.S. and abroad.

“Joe went to Washington, D.C., on a pilgrimage without me,” Lucille said. “Together, we have traveled to Lourdes twice and Ireland — Our Lady of Knock [shrine] — where he has paid his own way.”

That a person with Down syndrome can live independently and even travel abroad does not amaze Joe’s mother, who watched him accurately count his older sister’s waitress tips when he was a youngster. That skill again emerged at the café, where he was called upon to count money at the end of a shift when the person normally responsible for the task was called away early to attend to a sick child.

The general manager at the time was none other than Saccoman, who ran the Ramada from 2007 to 2010 and had no one but Joe available at the end of the day when the money needed to be counted and put into the safe.

Not knowing if Joe was up to the task, Saccoman stepped out of his comfort zone and asked, relying on managerial instincts and confidence in a trusted employee.
Joe did not disappoint.

“He had all the money counted to the penny and ready to go [into the safe],” Saccoman said. “He does it better than we did. We were always off by a dollar or so, but he had it down to the penny.”

Even though Saccoman moved on to a different hotel in 2010, he never forgot all of the ways Joe made a difference at the Ramada. It’s why he nominated Joe for the award this year.

“I think Joe has earned the award,” he said. “Common sense tells you that this is something that is rarely achieved. He fits the award perfectly — it’s a Hall of Fame award.”

Yet, his mother doesn’t see him primarily as an award winner. She recognizes something deeper about the presence of this man in her life, something that compels her to deliver a passionate message to mothers who find themselves in her shoes — having a child with Down syndrome.

“I want those mothers to realize that this is not the end of the world,” she said. “Here’s a young man who has brought much joy to many, many people. . . . Joe is truly a gift from God. He’s the greatest gift I’ve ever been given.”

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