published Sunday, April 20th, 2014

Chattanooga hotel handy man wins top industry honor

  • photo
    Bruce Tate verifies that workout equipment is in good running condition at Hilton Garden Inn at Hamilton Place.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
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  • photo
    Bruce Tate cleans the pool filter at the Hilton Garden Inn in Chattanooga near Hamilton Place.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

The call came in late on a weekend night. A little girl's braces had broken and were cutting into her mouth. But the family was traveling, staying at the Hilton Garden Inn in Chattanooga near Hamilton Place, and they couldn't find a dentist.

So Bruce Tate, the hotel's handy man and chief engineer, grabbed a pair of wire cutters and headed up to the room. He doused the wire cutters in alcohol and tried to hand them to the little girl's father. But the dad recoiled with a laugh and a defensive wave.

"He was like, 'No, no, no," Tate remembered.

So it was up to Tate.

"I wiped it down real heavy with alcohol and just went to clipping," he said.

The moment is one of countless experiences Tate has collected during his almost 40-year career as a hotel maintenance man. He's painted walls and fixed fireplaces, shoveled snowy parking lots and scrubbed steamy Jacuzzis. Last year, he cleaned a room after a woman gave birth in the bathroom because the housekeepers had already gone home.

"That's what's nice about this job, you can do something different every day," he said. "You don't really get bored."

He's marked his seventh year at the Hilton Garden Inn with a splash -- the American Hotel & Lodging Association just named Tate the Outstanding Lodging Employee of the Year at all medium-sized hotels in the country. (That's all hotels with between 151 and 300 rooms.)

Tate flew to Washington, D.C. earlier this month to accept the award, which he shrugs about.

"Luckily no public speaking was involved," he said.

He walks the hallways of the Hilton Garden Inn with a white towel in his back pocket, whistling almost constantly whatever song he last heard on the radio. He keeps a worn yellow screwdriver and a dirty blue wrench close at all times.

"He's a well-rounded person and he's got a great personality," said Tim Haynes, general manager. "He never runs into a problem. Everything is an opportunity."

The two have worked together for more than 20 years at various hotels in town, ever since a lawn and an ice machine brought the men together.

Tate started in hotels as a pool boy at the Chattanooga Choo Choo when he was 16 years old, working in flip flops and a tank top, keeping three pools and two Jacuzzis clean and neat. He moved up the ranks at the Choo Choo over 14 years, managing the movie theater and eventually becoming the second shift maintenance supervisor.

"That's where I learned almost everything I know," he said.

But the Choo Choo filed for bankruptcy in 1987 and Tate was about to have a baby and couldn't afford to lose his insurance, so he applied for a part-time lawn job at the same Holiday Inn in town that Haynes was working for.

On his first day, Tate got halfway through mowing the lawn when the hotel's ice machine broke. Again. Haynes had called companies out to fix it at least a half-dozen times and it just kept breaking down.

"Well, I can work on ice machines," Tate remembered saying. "I'll take a look at it."

He fixed the machine. And every day for two weeks after that, Haynes started his day by testing Tate's work.

"I would pull in, go straight to that ice machine," he said. "Push the button and ice would come out. And I thought, 'Man, what else can he do?' And when I figured out what else he could do, we stole him from the Choo Choo."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips and story ideas.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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