Willie Lewis, 63, works in the laundry department for the Doubletree Club Hotel/Hilton on High Street. As a houseman, Lewis daily washes, dries and folds up to 1,700 pounds of laundry. That’s all the bed sheets, towels and banquet linen it takes to supply the 100-room hotel. His supervisors describe Lewis as a model employee who goes out of his way to get the job done.
Recently, Lewis was one of 12 employees selected from more than 1,000 nominations to receive the company’s “CEO Light and Warmth” service award for 2012. The hotel company’s highest honor comes with a $10,000 prize and a trip for two to Dallas, where Lewis and other winners will be honored.
Lewis was born in Mobile, Ala., and moved with his family to Buffalo as a young child. He studied auto mechanics at Burgard Vocational High School and joined the Navy in 1971. For the past 27 years, Lewis has worked in the laundry departments of various hospitals and hotels. His day is done, he said, when he gets to the bottom of a laundry pile that routinely reaches the ceiling.
People Talk: What have you learned from the laundry business?
Willie Lewis: It’s my life, to tell you the truth. I like the challenge of seeing the pile go down. Sometimes on Sundays, when so many people check out, I’ll work till 3 and come back at midnight so it will be finished the next morning for the housekeeping ladies so they won’t have to be here all day waiting for linen.
PT: What is your strength as a laundryman?
WL: Getting the job done. Making sure I have my focus on what needs to be done. I’ve been running sheets for so long. That’s why when I teach the new people I say: “Stop looking at how much linen you’ve got to do, look at how much you’ve done.”
PT: What has changed about the laundry business since you started?
WL: The equipment. Machines that iron and fold sheets and pillowcases. And sheets; as they get older they get softer.
PT: Your hands are dry.
WL: I wash them all the time. Every time I load up the machine I go wash my hands. I don’t wear gloves. It’s not as bad as when I was at the hospital. No way in the world would I pick up hospital linen without gloves.
PT: What makes you so good at laundry?
WL: It keeps me busy. It makes the time go by at work. It’s a busy job folding the sheets, washing, hitting the floors to pick up the linen. Then I sort it and load up the washers and dryers. I get in my groove, and the next thing I know it’s all gone.
PT: What do you think about when you’re working?
WL: I have my country music on the radio sitting on the table next to me. It’s a little loud, but the machines make so much noise – especially in the spin cycle.
PT: What does it take for you to discard a sheet or towel?
WL: Stains that won’t come out. I cut the towels up and use them as rags. Sheets – if they have stains or marks – we send them to the City Mission. You’d be surprised. Some people write all over a sheet with magic markers – like when they’re having exams. One medical student wrote on a whole bed sheet – formulas and stuff. Law students, too, when they have exams, write on the pillowcases and sheets. I guess maybe they ran out of paper.
PT: What is your daily goal on the job?
WL: Not to have empty machines. I’m conscious of everything that’s going on. When the machines stop, and you leave sheets in them, you’ll fall behind.
PT: Where do you get your energy?
WL: I was born and raised a hard worker. I was really raised by my grandparents. My parents always stayed upstairs and my grandparents always stayed downstairs. We always rented a house big enough for eight siblings. The boys stayed with my grandparents. The girls would stay upstairs with my mother and father.
PT: You have a tattoo on your arm. What does it say?
WL: “Daddy Bill.” That’s something I did years ago when I was 14. I’m glad my parents didn’t catch me. I did it with India ink, a needle and thread on a rainy day. I was in my bedroom. I shut the door. The first letter hurt. The rest didn’t. I regret ever doing it. Everybody else was doing stupid things back then. A lot of my friends were putting girls’ names on. There’s no guarantee you’ll be with that person.
PT: There’s a demand for laundrymen overseas. Would you consider that?
WL: I’m considering retiring, to tell you the truth. I’ll miss my laundry, but I told them I’d come in over the weekend and do it – to help them out, you know? I never got married, and I don’t plan on it, though there is a special lady in my life, Ellen. She’s retiring, too. So I guess we’ll be traveling around for a while. She wants to take trains to different places.
PT: What do you do for fun?
WL: I just spend time with my friend and look at movies. Drink a little beer. Do some cooking, though she tells me I don’t cook like I used to. I just cook soul food – collard greens, fried chicken, bake some ham or pork shoulder marinated in Italian dressing. She’s from Guyana and she cooks spicy food, so we switch off.
PT: Who does the wash at home?
WL: I wash my own clothes.
PT: What was your reaction when you were told you won the award?
WL: I got weak-kneed, to tell you the truth. Teary-eyed, too.
PT: What are your plans for the prize money?
WL: To help Ellen. She needs help a lot. She’s got 30 years, but they’re scared she might hurt herself. They won’t let her go back to work. She’s in housekeeping, too, at another hotel.