More than 100,000 guests and visitors come to Washington's Marriott Wardman Park Hotel each year, and many of them -- men, women and children -- step through the revolving glass door looking for a hand. They have traveled across the country and around the globe with too much luggage and not enough arms and shoulders to carry it all.
That's usually when Willie Swinson steps up.
He lightens their load, escorts them and their bags to their rooms and then, when he gets a call at the bell stand in the lobby when they're ready to leave, he does it all over again, this time in reverse. He and the two dozen other bellmen and doormen at the Woodley Park hotel are some of the first and last people hotel visitors meet on their visit to Washington.
He says he tries to leave a good impression. "Always try and give it your best shot," he said of his work motto. "It always works out."
Swinson, a hotel bell captain, has been giving it his best shot for a long time. A very long time.
The District resident has been working for the hotel since the summer of 1952. He started when he was 18, and he is now 71. In a city where jobs and people come and go with frequency, Swinson has stayed put. "To me, it paid off to stick with a job," said Swinson, the longest-serving of the hotel's 1,100 employees.
Tandy Kraft, the hotel's director of human resources, described Swinson as quiet, unassuming and, as his July 26, 1952, hire date illustrates, dedicated.
"He's very proud of this hotel," Kraft said.
One recent afternoon, Swinson stood at the granite-topped bellmen's desk in the lobby, dressed in a black Nehru-style jacket, black slacks and black dress shoes. His nameplate read, simply, "Willie, Bell Captain." Waves of convention-goers, tourists and business people streamed in and out of the domed lobby. The 1,460-room hotel is the largest convention hotel in the city, and for Swinson that means lots of bags -- and lots of tips.
Peter and Tatyana Vaccaro of Olathe, Kan., had just checked in to the hotel when Swinson took hold of a cart with brass-colored arches and showed them to their room. They came to town to attend the funeral of Ronald Reagan. Swinson put their four pieces of luggage in the room two at a time, told them he was at extension 12 if they needed anything and walked away with a $5 bill.
He said his average tip these days is a little less than that, about $3. But occasionally, he said, there's a more personal transaction, and a lot more cash involved. One day many years ago, he recalled, he was escorting a woman to her room and carrying her bags, when she passed the gift shop. She walked in and bought two gifts for his children -- a toy train for his son and a stuffed animal for his daughter. Then she gave him a $100 bill. It was his best tip in all his years on the job.
There are other benefits besides the tips and gifts, he said. He has met a host of celebrities, dignitaries and Washington power brokers, some of whom used to live in the hotel's Wardman Tower, a historic 1928 building. He said he carried luggage for Chief Justice Earl Warren and Vice President Spiro Agnew and got to shake hands with boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
When Swinson first moved to the District from the small town in North Carolina where he was born and raised, he came looking for some work, preferably indoors. He had worked in the rain and sun in Wilson, picking cotton, getting his hands dirty. "I knew I could do better than that," he said. "At least get inside."
So he moved to Washington and lived with his aunt, whose husband worked part time in room service at the hotel and helped Swinson get hired as an elevator operator. When the elevators went from manual to automatic years later, he became a bellman.
Times have changed around him. The hotel has undergone extensive renovations since he first walked through its doors.
His children have grown, as have his three grandchildren. Even the job has changed, Swinson said, with the arrival of wheeled luggage that has taken a bite out of business.
But he hasn't thought a lot about retirement. As long as his health stays good, he said, he doesn't see a need to leave his post anytime soon.
"I don't even talk about it or think about it," he said.