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Trio relive glory days of old hotel

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Phyllis Steorts will forever be remembered as the woman who provided President John F. Kennedy with a chamber pot.

Not that the commander-in-chief needed one. The plumbing at the old Hotel Utah worked just fine, and the president and first lady had the finest bathroom in the house.

But Phyllis, who was responsible for preparing the Kennedys' room, wanted everything to be perfect during their visit to Salt Lake City in 1963. When she noticed that a window well in the room looked a little dreary, she promptly fetched an antique chamber pot and had it planted with ivy.

After the president's arrival, she was thrilled when hotel manager Hank Aloia pointed her way and whispered into President Kennedy's ear. Later, she asked Hank what he'd said.

"I told him you'd put a chamber pot in his room so he wouldn't have to get up in the night," Hank told her.

Thirty-nine years later, Phyllis, now 80, walks into the lobby of what is now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and smiles at 34 years' worth of happy memories.

The former Hotel Utah public relations director is meeting one-time executive housekeeper Joleen Meredith and former marketing director Suzanne Larson for one of their twice-yearly luncheons to reminisce about the glory days of "Utah's grand old lady."

The merriment was mixed with melancholy when I joined the trio for a Free Lunch of raspberry chicken salad and hard rolls in the Garden Restaurant overlooking Temple Square.

Although the hotel closed 14 years ago, the three friends say it seems like just yesterday that they were tending to the comforts of everyone from Luciano Pavarotti to newlyweds from Provo.

"Even today, when I walk into the lobby, I get the same feeling," says Joleen, 66, in housekeeping for 10 years. "There was a closeness here that went beyond loyalty. It was the love of the building. Everyone felt this was a palace that needed the best polish and care."

"There was an unspoken bond you had with people who worked here," says Suzanne, 56, an employee for 11 years. "There was just no hotel like it, and there never will be again."

Although the women were saddened when the last room key was turned in on Sept. 1, 1987, they prefer to focus on the good times when they get together.

"It was like a dream to work here," says Phyllis, who compiled a booklet of her memories, "Remember When." "Like one of our managers used to say, 'Every day was opening night.' "

Besides President Kennedy, Phyllis has fond memories of Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Jimmy Stewart and Liberace. "Jack Benny once told me that when he was in vaudeville, he always felt like he'd come home when he came to the Hotel Utah," she says.

Suzanne recalls eating breakfast next to Neil Diamond in the coffee shop, and Joleen will never forget putting a humidifier together for famed tenor Pavarotti. "He also required a tray of food in every room," she says, "and when he opened the windows, ants got into the food. So up we went to replace everything."

Of course, it wasn't any trouble. "We wanted everyone to feel like royalty," says Joleen. "Once, a sultan of some kind came to stay with his wives. We got word they needed 75 new towels, so I went over to ZCMI and bought them. I'm not sure why they needed 75 towels, and I'm not sure I want to know."

No two days at the hotel were ever the same, the three friends agree, as they dig into chocolate mint cake for dessert. "It was a special time," says Phyllis. "For everyone who stayed or worked there, the Hotel Utah was just a magical place."

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what's on your mind to freelunch@desnews.com or send a fax to 801-466-2851. You can also write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.