Story by Lisa Schmelz | Photography by Shanna Wolf
September through June, they teach our children. But when the final bell rings, some 20 local educators will high-tail it for Wisconsin’s second-deepest lake. While this is an annual ritual for most, it’s not a well-deserved vacation they’re heading toward.
Still, working a summer gig as a captain, bartender, or crew member onboard one of Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s eight vintage vessels does have a certain exhale factor for a school teacher.
Just ask Ray Ames. A band teacher for 36 years, he is also in his 36th season with Lake Geneva Cruise Line, a division of Gage Marine. Teaching elementary and middle school students how to play an instrument has its own high notes, he acknowledges. But after nine months in a classroom of aspiring young musicians, there is nothing quite like taking to the water and getting paid for it.
“I’ll do it as long as they’ll have me. There’s not many jobs as fun as (this). You’re on the water, in a beautiful boat, with people who are happy to be there. It’s rare for it not to be fun. Ninety nine percent of the time, you have people at their best,” says Ames, who started as a crew member in 1979, at the end of his first year at the local junior high school, and is now a band teacher at Reek Elementary School.
FROM CREW MEMBER TO CAPTAIN
Like so many of the company’s employees, Ames, who says he earns about 20 percent of his annual income driving boats, has risen through the ranks. For his first six years, he worked as a crew member and an engineer. For the last 30, he’s been a captain. How is conducting a school band like piloting a boat of a hundred-plus tourists past some of the nation’s most prestigious lakefront summer estates?
“You have to get people to work together,” he says simply. “I do that in the classroom, and I do that on the boats.”
Ray’s daughter, Amanda followed in her father’s footsteps in several ways. Now married and living in Silver Lake, Amanda is a middle school band teacher herself who had her rehearsal dinner on the Duchess, a smaller version of the Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s Lady of the Lake. And she also worked at the Cruise Line, starting in the office as a teen. At 17, she tried out for the mail boat and jumped the mail for the next five summers. Ray drove the mail boat on Sundays and holidays while Amanda delivered the newspaper.
“Growing up, I saw that my dad enjoyed both of his jobs — teaching during the school year and working on the boats in the summer,” Amanda remembers. “He worked hard but had fun while he was doing it. And because we lived in town, we could walk down to see the boats, and I met a lot of the people he worked with before I started working there. It was a family environment and I wanted to be part of that.”
Ray’s son Ben started as a dock hand at age 14, then moved onto the boats, and was also a mail jumper. Youngest son Brad also worked as a dock hand and crew member.
Ray’s summer commute is easy — he rides his bike about a half-dozen blocks to work. With downtown parking at a premium in the summer, it’s a convenient and faster option.
Harold Friestad is Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s vice president and general manager. He’s been with the company for 54 years, starting as a college student. When he took over hiring responsibilities in 1968, he realized educators could be a stabilizing force in a seasonal business.
“I started hiring teachers at that point because I thought it would add professionalism to what we do, and it has … It’s made the company a cutting-edge place to work in tourism,” he says.
Indeed, who better than a teacher to train a work force comprised mostly of high school and college students? This season, the Lake Geneva Cruise Line will employ about 100 people and 20 percent of that staff will be educators.
Unlike most summer tourism jobs in this region, the Cruise Line doesn’t advertise for help. When you have all those teachers working for you, explains Clare Mulcahy, the company’s charter sales manager, they, in turn, refer high school students or their sons and daughters suited for the work. Most of the high school students return each year, even after they go off to college. The same teachers that taught them how to do long division, write an essay or play in a marching band continue to mold them on the water.
“They can help us hand-pick our crew and most crew members stay on for multiple seasons. There’s a lot of longevity,” says Mulcahy.
WORK? WELL MAYBE
Greg Bunge is the band director at Badger High School in Lake Geneva, and has 18 seasons of cruise line work under his belt. A captain like Ames, he says he can’t think of a better way to earn a summer income. After his first year of teaching at Badger High School, he joined the Lake Geneva Cruise Line crew. Some of his current and former students work with him.
“If you find something you like to do, you never have to work a day in your life, so the quote says. And I’ve found that to be true with both of my jobs,” says Bunge. “I don’t want to sound cliché, but that’s exactly what it is.”
As someone who loves the outdoors (he rides his bike to work, rain or shine), Bunge enjoys spending his summers on the lake after spending the school year indoors. “You’re sharing the lake with people who may not have seen it before, and it’s never the same tour twice. I love the variety of the visitors and the water,” he says.
Bob Beighton is an English teacher at Delavan-Darien High School and the varsity basketball coach. After he locks his classroom up for the summer, he bartends for the Cruise Line.
“I just have to mix the drinks and tell the jokes … if you like to bartend, this is the perfect place to do it. What could be better?” says Beighton of his 17 years for the Cruise Line. “With charters, people are there to celebrate, really enjoying their time on the lake when they are on one of the cruises.”
One of Bob’s favorite times on the lake is early spring, when the Cruise Line begins operating tours for the season. With foliage just beginning to bud and few leaves on the trees, the lakefront estates are more visible from the boats. “In early May, without everything in full bloom, you can see the landscape and architecture better than any other time in the summer,” he says.
CAMARADERIE AND COMMUNICATION
Proving the Lake Geneva Cruise Line isn’t partial to putting band directors in the captain’s seat is John Brady. A retired elementary school teacher, who still substitutes in area districts, he’s entering his 39th season with the Cruise Line. He says there really isn’t much difference between working in a classroom or for a tour boat company.
“Whether it’s about young people or older people, we serve the public and there’s a certain amount of communication that goes into it as well,” he says.
Although John is the only teacher in his household, his wife and two of his three children (now grown) also worked for the Cruise Line. John’s wife, Carol, has worked part-time in the office for nearly 30 years. And during one summer, four out of five family members were employed by the Cruise Line, with the kids working as crew members and in food service. “It’s been a good thing for our family,” John says.
The Jack of all trades here is Jack Lothian, a sixth-grade elementary school teacher in Williams Bay. He’s done just about everything on the boats in his 13 seasons here, and is now working alongside Friestad in the office and as a captain.
But his working relationship with the Cruise Line has actually spanned nearly three decades. Jack started working as a teenager in the summer of 1987, first as a dock hand for several summers and then transitioning into a crew member, selling tour tickets, and other roles. He worked through high school and college, then left to play basketball overseas. When he got into the teaching profession years later, back in Wisconsin, Jack started working for the Cruise Line again during his summers off.
“It’s a good fit for me and it’s a great way to earn income in the summer,” he says. “I love being on the water and I love being here at Gage. Every day is different.”
Jack’s favorite work days are when the staff has to work together toward a common goal, such as preparing for a quick charter turnaround or handling the boats when a storm is approaching. “We all pitch in together and become even more of a team to get the job done,” he says.
SHARING THE LAKE, CREATING MEMORIES
Genise Kamps is a health aide at Central Denison Elementary School in Lake Geneva. Her contact with school kids is usually when they’re sick or injured, and as such, not all of them are pleased to see her. But come summer, it’s a different story.
“When I’m on the water, [people are] always happy to come see me because I’m a bartender,” she says, enthusiastically.
“And if you have to pick a summer job, why not pick a job that’s fun?”
This will be Genise’s tenth summer working for the Lake Geneva Cruise Line. She has worked day tours as well as countless charter cruises. One summer she made an effort to ask people where they were from and counted visitors from more than 13 countries, including India, England, France and Poland.
Charters have included wedding receptions, retirement parties, corporate events and celebrations of life, memorializing people who loved the lake. Genise recalls one man who surprised his wife with an anniversary party on the Lady of the Lake: the boat picked her up at the Geneva Inn, where she was having an unsuspecting lunch with friends. And many lakefront residents who own businesses have their corporate parties on the boats.
“You get a great mix of people, whether it is a day tour or a charter. People are always having so much fun and it’s great to share the beauty of our lake with them,” she says.