The year Peggy Rogers started working with the Georgia Welcome Center in Columbus, it was still on Victory Drive and Californian Ronald Reagan was less than a year in office after having wrested the U.S. presidency away from one of Georgia's favorite sons, Jimmy Carter.
That first moment on the job came in December 1981. Within a couple of months, Rogers will call it a career as an information specialist, having assisted thousands upon thousands of visitors with directions to area tourist attractions and beyond.
What a grand ride it has been, said Rogers, 71, who also is the assistant manager of the Georgia Visitor Information Center at its current location on Williams Road, off Interstate 185. That's where the facility has been since opening its doors to the traveling public in 1988.
"Tourism has been really, really good to me," said the Barbour County, Ala., native who now lives in Columbus. "And it's a wonderful career for anybody thinking about getting into it. It's a rewarding career. It's the second largest industry in Georgia (behind) agribusiness, and growing every day."
The Columbus visitor center -- which is due for a major renovation later this year -- is one of 11 across Georgia, with the local facility staying very busy. With a couple of days left in June, the center had welcomed about 40,000 visitors, said manager Lynn Hadden.
"A lot of it is Florida-bound traffic, because we're right here on that route," she said. "But we have a tremendous number of people who are coming to Columbus to see their children who are graduating from basic training or one of the schools at Fort Benning. And then we also have a tremendous number of people who are coming to Columbus to see what all the buzz is about, with the whitewater and the Blue Heron zip line and our amazing uptown."
Of course, Rogers has been singing the praises of things to do in the Columbus area for decades now. So she knows her tourism stuff like the back of her hand.
The Ledger-Enquirer's Tony Adams visited with Rogers recently at the visitors center to discuss her job, some very interesting moments, and what it takes to help make sure travelers find their way to and from home. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
What was it like at the welcome center on Victory Drive (now home to the Chattahoochee Valley Veterans Council)?
It wasn't nearly as nice. In the past, it had been the clubhouse for the golf course that was behind the visitor's center. It was actually a Works Progress Administration building, which was one of the Roosevelt programs that constructed buildings for different reasons.
They didn't do much to it (when it was) the golf course clubhouse. The shower room was where we kept our brochures, but you could still see the drains in the floors. That's where we stored them. But it was not insulated at all, not even the roof. As the years went on, we could actually see the light through the roof and when it rained, we had to get pots and pans and pails and set them all over the floor to catch some water. So it was getting in pretty bad condition.
When you came to this new center, what was your first thought?
I joked many times over the years about Prissy in "Gone With the Wind." I would say, 'Ooh, Miss Scarlett, we sure are rich now.' (laughs) It felt like a mansion to us.
What's your job been like through the years? People who remember you have stopped to stay hello?
Oh, yes. We have a lot of the same people who would visit us year after year and we would become friends as it were. They would come maybe twice a year on their way from north Atlanta or some place on the way to their Florida homes. We got to know a lot of them quite well.
They would simply stop here for a break?
They would, and we would chat for awhile and actually get to know about them and their children and different things. So we made a lot of good friends over the years, and they still come back regularly.
What are your day-to-day job duties?
First and foremost, it's to greet guests with a friendly face and help them with anything they need help with, and that can be a wide range of things. But we give them maps and directions and new materials that have come out since they've been here the last time.
Of course, when the people are not in here and when someone else is minding the counter, there's a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on. All of these brochures that you see in here are ordered and counted and catalogued so that we have a record of what's come in and how many we've used and things like that.
It's interesting. So many people come in and go, 'Oh, I'd love to have your job.' I say don't be so quick here. There's more than just standing here smiling. It's more than that.
What else is there to do?
Day-to-day record-keeping. We keep up with the traffic. We keep up with the number of people that come through. And at the end of the month, we have monthly reports to send in to Atlanta. So it's much like a regular office behind the scenes.
What's your favorite part of the job, simply dealing with the public?
Yes, I enjoy that very much. It's just being able to greet people with a smile and make them feel comfortable and help them. Some of them get this far and they have no idea (where to go from here). I don't think they knew exactly where they were going when they left home sometimes. They often are just at a loss as to which way to go from here. It's a good feeling to know that you helped put them on the right track.
Some people come in confused and maybe a little weary from being on the road?
Yes. I remember four young men came in one Sunday afternoon. They had left Atlanta eight hours prior to that and had been riding for eight hours trying to get to Montgomery. So you get instances like that where they have basically gone around in circles for hours.
How do you approach those kinds of folks and assist them?
Well, we give them a map. We highlight the routes. We right it down. We do everything but get in our automobiles and lead them. I have actually done that, however. One elderly couple, they were so tired and felt so lost and said they had been riding for days. I actually got into my automobile and had them follow me until I had them out on the interstate.
That's great. And you just kind of crossed your fingers and prayed?
Yes. I just put them in the Lord's hands from there.
Do the demographics of people stopping at the welcome center run the gamut?
Yes. We see people from all over the world. We have a lot of people from the Mideast. We have a lot of people from the Far East. They travel on the weekends and they are good tourists. They love to get out and go see the attractions and things in our area. There will be large groups of them, and they will bring their lunches and picnic at the tables out here.
What are the popular destinations and attractions you recommend that people see?
Providence Canyon is still very, very popular, especially with the Asian people and the Middle Eastern people ... A lot of them like to go to Plains. They still remember President Carter and they enjoy going there.
How about Callaway Gardens?
Yes, yes. It's a big attraction. A lot of people are familiar with that. They read about it in different places and hear about it from people that have been there. We still get a lot of Callaway visitors.
Is it easier now to recommend Columbus as a destination with all that it has, including the whitewater run downtown?
How has that changed things for you here?
It has given me something really big to tell them about, and something to be really excited about. A lot of them are surprised (and ask) 'Columbus has whitewater?' But with the whitewater rafting and the zip lining and the new restaurants and things that are downtown now, that's just made downtown very exciting.
I do have to ask, do you get tired of standing on your feet?
We have some bar stools behind the counter. If we have a minute and someone's not there, we sit down. But our little mantra is, if the guest is standing, you're standing.
What's the toughest part of your job? You do seem so upbeat.
Well, not every day of every year are you going to feel upbeat. But you have to pull it up from somewhere inside of you when you walk through that door. And it will just kind of catch on and keep increasing until, in a few minutes, you'll be upbeat again.
We've had sad things happen, where it's hard, but you've got to learn to stay calm. You've got to learn to control your emotions. I was told early on when I started: You do not talk back. You do not argue. It's always: I understand, ma'am, I understand, sir, and you go on and try to smooth things over and help them the best that you can. But, you know, the vast majority of people are so nice. In 34 years, I have rarely found anyone that was not nice to me, or unpleasant.
Any interesting experiences for you? I understand there was a medical emergency once that you helped tend to.
A few years ago, we had a gentleman, just as he was coming into the building, going toward the restroom, he had a massive heart attack and fell straight over on his face. Of course, some people saw him and I heard the commotion and I went out there to him and was trying to determine if he could talk to me or anything, which he was totally unresponsive. But about that time a lady came out of the ladies' rest room and said: Do you need some help? I'm a registered nurse. I said, yes, ma'am, I do. And she was working with him. She did not turn him over or do anything. The EMTs told us that he did not ever breath on his own again.
He was gone?
Yes. He died right there where he fell ... You've got to control the crowd. And his wife was with him at the time, and family members. That's where the 'remaining calm' comes in.
That has to be your most difficult moment?
It was, it was. And we've had to call the EMTs a few times. What's hard for me, once (ill people) leave here, is we don't know what happened. With this gentleman who passed away, his family came back to pick up his automobile and they told us he never was revived. But most of the time we don't know if they made it or didn't make it or what.
On the other end of things, have you had any funny or curious moments that made you chuckle or laugh?
Our restrooms are set up to where there are two ladies restrooms together and two men's restrooms together. Invariably, the men go into the ladies' rooms. The ladies don't go into the men's room. But (the men) look up and (somehow) see women's on the door and (for some reason think) that's the men's room and just push right in. (laughs) So sometimes it's their reaction that can be comical.
When is your final day?
It's not written in stone yet, but it will probably be around Sept. 1 ... I did half jokingly tell Lynn a few days ago that, hey, I've got to hang around and see all of this (renovation work) happen.
Anything else you would like to add?
It's been a wonderful career for me ... It has been a such a blessing to me.
Name: Peggy Rogers
Hometown: Barbour County, Alabama
Current residence: Columbus
Education: Graduate of Louisville High School in Barbour County; various continuing education classes at Columbus College and Columbus Technical College
Previous jobs: Dental assistant for a periodontist
Family: Son, Alan Parmer, and daughter, Karla Childree; two grandsons and three great-grandchildren
Leisure time: Enjoys gardening and reading, and hopes to do more traveling in retirement; a cruise and a trip to Europe are on her wish list
Of note: She lived three years in Tokyo, Japan, when her former husband was in the U.S. Army, with her son being born there; and she was "resistant" to moving to Columbus initially, but she's grown to love it and call it home