The St. of the St. James Tearoom
For Father’s Day this year, in light of the upcoming release of our short film on the ‘History of The St. James Tearoom,’ it might be interesting to relate a hidden bit of history about the Tearoom. For most of our guests the world over, The St. James Tearoom is synonymous with my mother Mary Alice, who personifies for many the Grace, Civility, and Beauty that the Tearoom so tries to encourage and model for the world. Yet most people would probably be surprised to realize The St. James Tearoom is named after a man, and a very specific man at that—my father James, who through his selfless life and support of my mother, not only made her dream of the Tearoom possible, but who literally kept the Tearoom going through the hardest years when we first began.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind the Tearoom would not now exist if it hadn’t been for my dad. When my mother first began to talk about starting her own business twenty five years ago, my dad encouraged her to research, travel to get training, and think through all that would be needed in a new venture. Privately, however, as a lifelong engineer whose main job was to eliminate risk, the thought of his wife adding risk by starting a business he would be financially liable for frankly scared him to death! Despite the risk, he believed more in the strength and creativity of my mother, and when the Tearoom opened in December 1999, he had already had a huge hand in setting it up for success.
As the first initial successes (like receiving a 4-star rating six months after opening!) gave way to ‘normal’ operations, it soon became clear just how long and hard this journey to making a successful business would be. To anyone in this situation, it is disillusioning, to say the least. You reach the summit of starting a business and excitedly look back, feeling you have conquered the mountain—only to turn around and look up at Mt. Everest stretching above you, and you realize that all you have conquered is just the first tiny foothill.
During this hard time, my Dad would ride his bicycle 11 miles to work in the morning, work a full day, commute 11 miles back, NOT home, but straight to the Tearoom. Without any dinner, he would jump into whatever might be needed of him that day. Usually this just involved digging his hands into whatever hard task we had, getting dirty cleaning or doing dishes so we could focus on other tasks. I remember initially we washed all our dishes in this three-compartment sink, not an automated dishwasher. It was situated just low enough to completely destroy your back after a few hours washing, and yet my dad would jump in and do this day after day after day, taking the hardest tasks so we could do lighter ones. To this day, his stamina just astonishes me.
After all was done at the Tearoom, my dad and mom would go home and try to get some dinner, but they weren’t done. There was still the two to three hours of laundry waiting for them after coming home, each and every day we were in operation. Since we started the Tearoom, we have always insisted on having real, fine linens for our guests, because it makes the experience of tea so gracious and excellent. In those early years when we couldn’t even imagine paying for a laundry service, my parents would take the day’s dirty linens home, wash them all, and then iron each and every linen. For YEARS I remember my parents having dinner on that same white and green ironing board, catching a quick bite, surrounded by piles and piles of linens. Why did they have dinner on an ironing board? They did this not only because the work had to be done, but because our dining room table and all our furniture had been taken to be used at the Tearoom for guests.
Even the weekends did not mean rest for my dad, particularly because they were our busiest days at the business. It was many years that he gave up his entire Saturday (and often Sundays as well) to help me do the weekly accounting. Despite the sameness of it every single weekend, the one thing we could look forward to was having lunch together when the work was done. We did this for many, many years. Funny how the struggle and pain of those times has faded, but the sweetness of the times we got to spend together having lunch each week still stick with me. I do know for a fact that his meticulous, engineering nature caught so many errors, and helped create excellent business processes that sustained us through those hard, formative years. So consumed was I at just trying to make this business survive that I never considered how he was always giving up his weekends to help us, rarely getting a rest himself.
When our business grew to the point where my dad did not have to come by after work each day, and when he didn’t have to help with accounting every weekend, he still remained a selfless, strong support, giving wisdom and advice from all his years of experience, and above all, believing in us when we didn’t believe in ourselves. He was and is truly the ultimate CHAMPION, the one who makes you stronger with constant encouragement, and is always willing to jump in to help, because he knows “you can do it.”
A father’s sacrificial love and belief can be a deep and wide foundation on which to build a good and beautiful thing, whether it be a life, a business, a career, a friendship. Any foundation, however, is rarely seen and seldom noticed. Not everyone is perhaps as fortunate to have a good foundation that comes from a selfless father, but even for those who do not, I hope it is still encouraging to hear that such men still exist.
If this (my dad’s) story isn’t a model for all fathers on Father’s Day, then I don’t know what is.
Daniel C. Higbie