America’s got talent -at the airport

Milwaukee Airport_ Daniel Meek

Daneil Meek: TSA officer AND bagpiper

An artist, a baker and a bagpiper walk into an airport.

Is that the first line of a bad joke?

It could be. But it’s also a sampling of the hidden talents pursued by people who work at some of the nation’s airports. In some cases, only their colleagues reap the benefits, but from impromptu concerts to employee art shows, fliers across the country may encounter some fun and diversion in the midst of a stressful travel day.

Here’s the story I wrote about these talented airport workers for my At the Airport column in USATODAY.com.

When he’s not training for swim meets, Daniel Meek (above), the TSA administrative officer at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Airport, plays the bagpipes (yes, in a traditional Scottish kilt) at events ranging from funerals to local, regional and national law enforcement ceremonies. “A group of TSOs [Transportation Security Officers] are going to ride motorcycles to the 9/11 ten-year anniversary ceremonies in Washington DC, and I’m going to join them with my bagpipes,” said Meek.

Special events at Los Angeles International Airport now often include a few tunes by a chorus of surprisingly sweet-voiced TSA employees. “Our goal is to put the human face of the TSA in the public. Not just the ‘Take off your shoes’ image,” LAX Terminal Screening Manager Raul Matute told me back in December as the group readied for holiday performances in several terminals.

LAX TSA CHOIR

LAX TSA CHOIR

At Denver International Airport, the contract manager can sing opera, the CFO plays trumpet, a member of the custodial staff leads an in-demand mariachi band and one of the customer service volunteers is a magician. “Maybe we should start a band or hold a variety show in the terminals each Friday,” said airport spokesperson Jenny Schiavone.

No joking around. Well, sometimes.

Don Steinmetz is a veteran Phoenix police sergeant assigned to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, where he supervises explosive-detection dogs and their police partners. “At the airport, our job is to deter, detect and keep people safe,” says Steinmetz. Outside the airport, Steinmetz performs on the stand-up comedy circuit, where his job is to make people laugh. “At the airport there are thousands of people and so many diverse situations. So there are plenty of hilarious things I can talk about from a police officer’s point of view.”

Kelly McCarron, a JetBlue employee at San Francisco International Airport, also moonlights as a stand-up comic. She interacts with the public at ticket-counters and gates all day but, unlike Steinmetz, doesn’t put many work stories into her act. “People in the audience have usually been on the other side of the airport interaction and I’m usually in the role of the bad guy. So it’s hard to get them on my side.”

On the serious side, Debbie Ramirez, spends her days marketing and promoting Phoenix Sky Harbor. But in her spare time, she and her horses are on-call for the posse that helps with search and rescue efforts for the Maricopa County sheriff’s office. “People go out hiking in the mountains and get lost or in trouble,” says Ramirez. “We’ve rescued a lot of people, but sometimes we can only help families find closure.”

Aerobatics and other art

When he’s not on the job, Mark Leutwiler, the Security Operations Manager at Portland International Airport (PDX) can be found up in the air practicing aerobatic art. “When I was young I went flying with someone and we went upside down. That’s when I realized that’s what I want to do. Now I fly loops and rolls and spins as much as possible.”

One of Leutwiler’s co-workers, Pauline Nelson, oversees security access for much of the terminal building and de-stresses by cooking, baking and building decorated cakes. She’s taken first prize at the Oregon State Fair numerous times, but it may be her co-workers who reap the rewards. “Basically, there aren’t enough people in my household to eat all the things I cook,” said Nelson, “So I bring things to work all the time.”

Reno-Tahoe International Airport hosts an annual Employee Art Show and this year the exhibit featured about 100 paintings, works on paper, photos, sculptures, crafts and mixed media entries by 59 airport employees and their family members. Similar art shows, supported by the National Arts Program are held regularly at airports in Orlando, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Dallas-Fort Worth.

And while Boston Logan International Airport has an official photographer, airport spokesman Richard Walsh calls landside operations manager Rudy Chiarello “the airport’s official, unofficial photographer.” Chiarello has been a Massport employee for 35 years and has amassed thousands of photos, many of them of airplanes taken from out on the airfield. “I was one of those people who thought my pictures sucked,” said Chiarello, “But after 9/11, I wanted to promote aviation so I started uploading my pictures to airliners.net and got great responses. I never knew people would be so crazy about airline pictures.”

Then there’s Art Cozart, who has worked as a baggage handler for US Airways at Charlotte Douglas International Airport for the past 29 years. “About ten years ago I had coffee in the break room and drew a picture on the Styrofoam cup with a pen,” said Cozart, whose art training consists of a ‘filler’ class he took during his senior year of high school. Cozart kept doodling and now estimates he’s covered about 1000 Styrofoam cups with his artwork.

In October 2010, a selection of Cozart’s cups were displayed during the grand opening of Charlotte’s Mint Museum UPTOWN and now there’s a website featuring his creations. Mostly, though, Cozart says he just draws cups for friends and family and gives them away. “I’ve done animals, boats, airports, landscapes and people, including Marilyn Monroe, The Munsters, Dale Earnhardt, and Laurel and Hardy.” As for his choice of medium? Cozart explains, “I can draw on paper if I have to, but this helps keep cups out of the landfill.”

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