The Queen of the Lake

Outstanding NH Women

By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper

(Photo courtesy M/S Mount Washington)

If there was a job description for Polly May’s position at the M/S Mount Washington, it might read something like this: Must be willing to multi-task; must love talking with people from a variety of countries; must have a willingness to learn new things; must be cool and courageous under pressure; must show compassion; must be able to serve as unofficial tourism expert/ambassador; must be curious and love a challenge and like to be busy; must have a great sense of humor and a good memory.

That is quite a list, and most people would shy away from applying for such a job. But not Polly, who has been working at the M/S Mount Washington’s office since 1980. On any given spring, summer or fall day, she is asked to do many tasks and she embraces being busy. You will find her at the ticket window of the Mount’s Weirs Beach office, ready to greet, to answer questions…and of course, to sell tickets for a memorable ride on the Mount, or its smaller sister vessels, the Sophie C (mailboat) and/or the Doris E.

“I’m not someone who likes to sit and do nothing!” Polly explains with a laugh. “When I’m at home, for example, I love to work in my flower garden. And I love my job because it keeps me busy. No two days are ever the same.”

Many, many return customers, who saunter up to the Weirs Beach ticket window to inquire about the Mount Washington, find a laughing, happy Polly there to greet them. Or she might be training new seasonal help; those many teens and college students might be shy and nervous the first day on the job, but they soon blossom under Polly’s guidance and care.

Indeed, if you stop to chat with Polly outside the ticket window on the boardwalk area, it is difficult to complete a sentence. Polly is constantly interrupted by returning customers and old friends, who are eager to catch up after the winter.

How did Polly land such an unusual job that requires her to be part Lakes Region ambassador, part Lakes Region historian, salesperson, cheerleader and all-around good sport? Her eyes twinkle as she recalls, “I am originally from Vermont. My husband, Donald, and I spent many weekends boating on Lake Winnipesaukee and when he sold his business in Vermont, he said he wanted to ‘go to the lake and get a job.’ ” And that is what he did, bringing Polly to New Hampshire with him.

“It was 1980 and I remember walking around the Weirs area and thinking I wanted a job that would be fun. I decided to stop by the Mount Washington’s office. I told them I was looking for a job and they said they had been thinking of hiring someone. Russell Brown hired me to be a ticket agent and office manager.”

These days, Polly’s title is director of sales (she has been with the company for 37 years). Ask anyone who works with Polly and they will tell you she is less about titles and more about getting the job done. Few people know as much as tourism in the area, and can answer the many questions of those who are purchasing tickets for a cruise on the Mount. Polly says she loves talking with British and German and Spanish customers, among others, who bring a taste of the international world to the Weirs Beach area.

What sorts of questions do customers ask? Polly laughs again as she says, “The question we get the biggest kick out of is when someone calls and asks how long it will take for the boat to get to the top of Mount Washington! I answer questions about the ship, how long and what time cruises depart, where the ship goes, prices, where to eat and shop for example.”

When Polly started at the M/S Mount Washington all those years ago, the ticket office was in a small red shed (an old railroad station). At that time, she worked year round, spending the winter season doing a number of office tasks and sales and sending out mailings, etc. “In the winter the bathrooms at the Weirs were closed, so the owner at that time would pile the staff into his car and drive us to the Gandy Dancer (restaurant) down the road to use their bathrooms!”

Polly paints a picture with words of those days and all the fun she had at the job. Scott Brackett, she says, was the owner (from 1971-1985), and she recalls with fondness the “mystery trip” he treated the staff to at the end of each summer season. “And back in the early days, we worked at the Center Harbor dock office in the shipyard and then we moved to the Weirs for the summer months.

“When I first worked here, we took orders for tickets over the phone,” she recalls. “We used to have stacks of checks and we used typewriters. We also had to hand-write every order. This was before computers! I remember the advent of computers and telling everyone I was going to quit (because it looked so complicated to learn).”

But Polly learned the new system and today she uses the computer every day and is quite proficient. While computers have made her work easier and faster, she says she always stays as long as it takes to get the job done, although she technically works a 9 am to 5 pm day in the office. In between selling tickets, doing all sorts of office tasks and sales, there are the inevitable questions from those visiting the area. “They want to know about the parking meters at the Weirs and where to eat and find lodgings and how long it takes to get to the White Mountains. We really are unofficial Chamber of Commerce experts!”

One of the most popular rides is on the Sophie C (mail boat), according to Polly. “It is beloved with tourists, and they love to watch the mail being delivered from the boat to all the islands. It is really unique. The Doris E is a great shorter ride and good for families with young children, because it is only one-hour long.”

Because it will soon be time for the annual Race & Rally in mid-June, known as Bike Week, of course Polly gets asked a lot of questions about the event that brings thousands of motorcycles to the area. (Many make Weirs Beach their must-see place to visit.)

“Bike Week is always different!” Polly says. “In the 1980s, it was more boisterous and there was a lot more traffic. Now I think it is quieter and many people who attend are older. I am in the office all week, answering the phone…and of course, answering lots of questions!”

Fall is also a busy season for the M/S Mount Washington. Polly loves the autumn season and says it has become quite popular with visitors who count their vacation incomplete until they take a trip on the Mount to see the foliage and the area from the water.

Among the changes Polly has seen is watching some staff members come and go, and some stay on and grow up in the business. She speaks fondly of co-owner Jim Morash. “Jim is originally from Vermont and so am I, so there is that connection. He started out here as a deck hand! Eventually he became a captain and now he is a co-owner (with Ed Gardner and Chris Secord).” (According to information about Jim Morash at www.cruisenh.com, “As a young boy growing up and spending his summers on Bear Island, he watched his brother and sister enjoy their summers working on the “MOUNT”, thus giving him the idea to follow them some day. Jim started with the Flagship Company in 1979 working as a deckhand during his college years. He joined on full time in 1982 and has risen through the ranks serving as a Deck Officer, Purser, Small Boat Skipper, Pilot, and Marketing Director. He was promoted to Captain and General Manager in 2000 and in 2006 he became part of the ownership and Chief of Operations.”)

Polly speaks well of all three owners and adds that the entire staff work well together. “It’s a team effort.”

To reinforce the fact that titles aren’t very important to her, Polly says no one on the staff works under her, but rather she works with the entire staff. “This is a great place to work, and I never know what each new day will bring.”

It means the world to Polly to keep in touch with and receive letters from young people she trained. One young woman wrote and told Polly, “You were the best boss I ever had.” Polly goes on to stress, “We have a lot of smart, young people working here each year and they are fun to work with.”

These days, Polly and Donald spend winters in Florida. They travel to and from Florida by train (she says riding trains across the country is her all-time favorite thing to do).

In the summer, when Polly and Donald have houseguests, they love to take them for Sunday Brunch on the Mount Washington. No one would serve as a better tour guide to the Lakes Region than Polly, who knows the area so very well.

Sitting at an outside table overlooking the Weirs dock area and the Mount taking on passengers on a Saturday morning, Polly reflects for a moment on the 37 years of fun and activity she has seen at her job.

“You know, it has been great – I’ve made a lot of friends. Great people like Millie Beach (the former director of the Lakes Region Association), among others. My husband was a bartender on the Mount and he retired a few years ago. Every year I say I am going to retire, but here I am again for another season!”

It could be because Polly likes to keep busy. It could be because she loves to see the customers who are genuinely happy to greet her each season.

But as much as anything, it is because of the iconic symbol of the Lakes Region: the M/S Mount Washington.

“The Mount has a mystique,” Polly reflects as she gazes at the ship not far from her outdoor table. “It is special and you can never get away from that fact.”

Certainly Polly was lured by that mystique when, in 1980, she walked up to the little office and asked if they were hiring.

Luckily for all those who know and adore Polly, the M/S Mount Washington was in need of someone just like her that day. Someone who could do it all; a person not afraid to jump in where and when it was needed. She may not have been handed a set-in-stone title or job description when she was hired, but it turns out that is just the way Polly likes it.

(For ticket prices and an operation schedule for the M/S Mount Washington, the Doris E and Sophie C, call 603-366-5531 or visit www.cruisenh.com.)

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