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Hilton honors employees who have been there since the beginning

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; 8:37 AM

Charlie Ragusa is the senior banquet captain at the Hilton on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington. He has been with the hotel since it opened in 1965. He has served every U.S. president since Lyndon Baines Johnson. But to hear Ragusa tell it, one of the highlights of his career was getting baseball great Joe DiMaggio to sign an autograph -- for someone other than himself.

"The fella already had two signatures on the ball," Ragusa said as he recalled the 1989 encounter. "One was Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. That swung me."

DiMaggio was at the Hilton for a National Italian American Foundation dinner. Ragusa, 77, pointed out that he, too, is Italian American. "I went up to DiMaggio and said, 'Listen, if a man is crazy enough to try to get an autograph with 2,700 people in a ballroom, would you do it for him?' And he said, 'Sure, no problem at all.' "

Ragusa, a resident of Falls Church, was among three Hilton employees -- all of whom have worked at the hotel since it opened -- honored Thursday during an anniversary celebration for the Washington landmark.

"We have so many great team members who have worked in this hotel for such a long time," said Steve Cowan, a general manager of the hotel. Many, he said, stay long after they are eligible for retirement. "They are the ones who really make it happen for the guests."

The hotel is undergoing a $140 million renovation and restoration effort that includes bringing back the original name, Washington Hilton. In recent years it has been known as the Hilton Washington.

Over the years this Hilton has been the venue for the White House Correspondents Association dinner, the Congressional Black Caucus dinner, the National Prayer Breakfast and many inaugural balls. It was also the scene of a presidential assassination attempt. On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot as he was leaving the hotel.

But as Hilton officials look forward with its renovation underway, the hotel is also looking back by returning to its original name, renaming restaurants and meeting rooms after locations in the District, and honoring its longtime employees.

"Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, Sammy Davis Jr." Ragusa lists the names of the celebrities he encountered over the years. "I think my favorite was Alfred Hitchcock."

Mary Johnson, a room attendant, says the entertainers were among her favorites, too. "I have met Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, the Jackson Five when Michael was just 7, and Mahalia Jackson," said Johnson, 72, of Bladensburg. "This has been a home away from home, and every guest is treated like the president."

Security officer Clifton Roberts said he "stumbled upon his job" after he was robbed and was looking for money to send back to his home town in North Carolina. "I've never had the desire to leave," said the District resident, "because I've had a good life here."

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