INDIANAPOLIS — Denise Cummings knew something big was coming.
Mayor Bill Hudnut stepped onto her elevator in the City-County Building on March 28, 1984. It was a few hours before Indianapolis would learn that Hudnut had pulled off a signature achievement. He was holding onto one of the best-kept secrets in the city’s history.
“You watch the news,” Cummings recalls Hudnut telling her. “We’ve got something coming in.”
That something turned out to be a fleet of Mayflower trucks, rumbling into town from Baltimore. Hudnut had lured a National Football League team — and Cummings was among the first to catch wind of it.
Cummings had unique proximity to Hudnut — and every Indianapolis mayor since.
This summer, Cummings is marking her 40th anniversary working at the City-County Building, including the past 36 years as operator of the service elevator. Her duties include transporting the mayor and his staff up to the 25th floor.
At a time when elevator operators are nearly extinct, the Indianapolis Building Authority retains the position because of the City-County Building’s unique needs. In addition to moving the mayor’s staff through the building, Cummings helps disabled passengers, transports prisoners to courtrooms and guides tourists toward the observation deck.
The service elevator is off to the right of the main elevators as you enter the City-County Building from East Washington Street. Cummings, 59, charms its riders, from vacationers to inmates, with her kindness and gregarious personality. An ex-convict once returned and offered to buy her a gift (Cummings declined, but said the woman could buy her a peach if she insisted). The city’s five most recent mayors have enjoyed her friendship and occasional counsel.
“She’s had a very personal relationship with every mayor,” said Ron Reinking, who recently retired as general manager of the Indianapolis Building Authority, which serves as landlord to the City-County Building. “They come on, they shoot the breeze with Denise. I think, once in a while, we’ve even had mayors ask Denise’s opinion on certain things. And she’s never hesitated to give them her opinion.”
The guidance occasionally comes unsolicited. Shortly after Mayor Joe Hogsett took office in January 2016, Cummings alerted him to a bit of mayoral protocol that hadn’t been covered in orientation. It was an Indiana Pacers game day, and city-county staff had not been reminded to wear their team’s colors.
Everybody here in the office of the mayor was just trying to get organized and get things up and running and to begin this new administration,” Hogsett said. “And I can remember Denise stopping me in the elevator and informing me in no uncertain terms that I had not issued the requisite email to all city employees about Pacers blue-and-gold day. As much of a Pacers fan as I am, that was the last thing on my mind.”
Team color days also are in effect for the Colts and Indiana Fever, Hogsett now knows.
“She is pretty much the deputy mayor for sporting event dates,” Hogsett said.
Cummings has taught Hogsett dance moves, including the two-step, and given him additional duties, such as notifying city-county employees that they can leave a bit early ahead of holidays and making sure everything’s running smoothly across the street at Indianapolis City Market.
“He said, ‘The mayor does all of that?'” Cummings said. “I said, ‘The mayor does a lot.’ He said, ‘They didn’t tell me all of this, Denise.’ And I said, ‘I know they didn’t. I’m letting you know.'”
After recounting some of his lighthearted moments with Cummings, Hogsett became earnest while speaking about her in an interview.
“I love her,” he said. “I think the feeling is mutual.”
Indeed, Cummings is equally fond of Hogsett, whom she called a “good person,” noting they regularly hug in the morning.
“I love our mayor,” she said. “He is such a jewel.”
Cummings started working in the City-County building in summer 1977. She handled housekeeping duties for a city contractor and met other workers in the building who suggested she might be a good fit for an elevator job.
The Indianapolis Building Authority hired Cummings as an elevator operator in June 1981 and she eventually succeeded Mildred Watson as the main operator. An Oct. 3, 1982, IndyStar profile of Watson and Cummings described them as wearing “smartly tailored blue uniforms and white blouses” and noted they had recently transported actress Cicily Tyson and musical artists Isaac Hayes and the Commodores.
Cummings is among two elevator attendants at the City-County Building. Deborah Bishop operates a separate elevator that picks up where the service elevator leaves off on the 26th floor. Bishop’s elevator takes visitors up two more stories to the 28th-floor observation deck.
Although automated elevators have virtually eliminated the need for human operators, the City-County Building’s service elevator will require an attendant for the foreseeable future, said Reinking, the retired Building Authority general manager and Cummings’ longtime boss.
“The service elevator is the lifeline of the building,” Reinking said. “If you didn’t have someone in charge of that, then someone could commandeer the elevator for their own purposes. With prisoner movement, especially, you have to have somebody in charge of it.”
Cummings held more than one job throughout most of her time at the City-County Building. Until two years ago, she worked in the elevator from 7 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. and then went to a second job in housekeeping until 10 p.m.
Cummings refuses to complain about anything. After 40 years of working at the City-County building, she earns a little more than $32,000 a year. She waved off a question about whether she wishes she could have left her second job sooner.
“Me and my husband, we’re OK,” she said. “We live good.”
Her husband, Charles Cummings, is retired after spending 33 years at Allison Transmission, working on the assembly line and later as a forklift driver.
Cummings enjoys spending more time with her husband. But she’s not in a hurry to stay at home all day. Cummings insists the excitement of the City-County Building makes it impossible to get bored at work, even while spending eight hours a day in a windowless elevator.
“Listen, how good do I have it?” Cummings said. “I come in every day, run the elevator and sit down if I want to, stand up if I like. I enjoy people. I enjoy talking to people. That keeps my mind going.”
Retirement is not for her, at least not anytime soon.
“What are you gonna do when you go home? Nothing,” she said. “By the time you get through cleaning out your closets, doing this and doing that, then what you going to do? Then I’ll be looking for a job.
“I’ll be right there on that elevator until they say, ‘Denise, it’s time for you to go.'”
That seems unlikely to happen, at least as long as Hogsett is mayor.
“She is an incredibly dedicated public servant,” Hogsett said. “Many might think what she does is rather routine. Many might characterize it as pretty easy work. It’s not. She has to deal with all types of personalities. And she does it all, at least from my observation, with incredible aplomb.”
Cummings returns the praise to Hogsett. But she stops short of naming a favorite mayor during her tenure in the City-County Building. Hogsett suspects it isn’t him.
“It would be an honor to go down as No. 2, but I’m trying to catch up with Bill Hudnut,” Hogsett said.
Cummings, remembering the day she learned Indianapolis nabbed the Colts, seemed to confirm his guess.
“If it wasn’t for Hudnut, I tell you, we wouldn’t be where we’re at today,” Cummings said, standing on the City-County Building’s observation deck and looking out across Downtown Indianapolis. “He put us on the map.”
Source: The Indianapolis Star, http://indy.st/
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com
This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by The Indianapolis Star.