Southern hospitality. Until I came to Atlanta in 1991, I had no idea that such a term even existed. Now, it's one of the most commonly touted themes used to discuss the Olympics here in our fair city. But what does southern hospitality entail?
I've spent five years trying to move past the stereotypes of this phrase; I no longer conjure images of fat grandmas with slow drawls serving steaming bowls of cheese grits to the neighbors. That, indeed, could be part of the culture of the South; it does not, however, go past an external picture to the phrase's internal meaning. And the real meaning of southern hospitality is one of the most important things I've learned from Emory University not only during my five years living, studying and working here, but also during the Centennial Olympic Games.
Emory was a non-competition venue. We offered low-cost accommodations, a place for the press to work, a training site for the athletes, transportation all over the city and a staff willing to hold the whole show together. We drew no crowds of spectators, no Izzy appearances, few mentions in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution and almost no glamour. And hundreds of people from around the world chose to make their home here during the Olympics precisely for these reasons.
We were, therefore, relatively quiet during the Olympic Games. That is, quiet to an outside eye expecting an Olympic venue to resemble something close to Centennial Olympic Park on opening day. Internally, hundreds of people worked--many for free--to make sure the visitors to this beautiful campus would know the true meaning of southern hospitality.
Because we got less hype, I believe we provided our visitors with more of a home. People relaxed when they came home to our proud buildings and lush walkways; we became the smiling, behind-the-scenes patrons of good will and assistance. The faculty, staff and students of Emory were extremely prominent during this time, not only through the extra help and support from virtually every division of the University, but also through the uniforms of both volunteers and staff. Dave Anderson, venue manager at Emory, called Emory's commitment to the Games "a true family affair" due to the number of recent graduates and staff devoting their time to the Games. At other venues, I'm not so sure that this was a trend.
I never had any doubts about Emory's commitment to the Games. I've seen firsthand how people here pull together to make things work and work right; I've admired people like Karen Salisbury, director of University Conferences, and John Connerat, assistant venue manager, for years due to their strong work ethics and clear, solid professionalism. But what did surprise me was the way so many "Emory outsiders"--volunteers from the Atlanta metro area or, in my particular area, even volunteers from as far away as South Africa--quickly became an enthusiastic part of the place I consider home.
I'll be honest with you--for a long time, I've been fairly apprehensive about leaving this place. After I graduated in 1995, I stayed on as a staff member in Residence Life and the Division of Institutional Advancement, thus giving me my first experiences in "the real world" through the safe haven of my alma mater. Around January, I grew uneasy for the first time--would I be able to make it outside of Emory? I'd built a pretty good microcosm for myself here, after all. What does it take to start over? And somewhere along the line, I forgot to figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life. It was pretty scary.
Working for the Olympics at Emory this summer, I lost a lot of that fear. It showed me that people all over are basically the same--despite everyone's good points and bad points, the will of the spirit to do one's best under any circumstance shines through. Every day, I stood in awe at the motivation of the volunteers, ready and willing to help in any situation imaginable. They smiled, they worked hard and they never complained. Mixed with the Emory "regulars," we became an impenetrable team. I learned that there's nothing to be scared of in the world outside of Emory; the people out there are just as kind, accepting and intelligent. I was eased into the diversity of the outside world by the good will and steadfast dedication of the people of Atlanta, the people who made it possible for all of us to do our jobs.
This transplanted northerner has finally learned the true meaning of southern hospitality, what Billy Payne meant when he said the people of Atlanta, with their good hearts and welcoming natures, would make this the best Olympic Games ever. But this institution demonstrated that tenet firsthand. Emory came together with the rest of the world in a very unique way for the past two weeks, a way that emphasized rest and comfort over competition and glory. We gave our guests the former so they could enjoy the latter. We held down the fort. We replenished their energies. And overall, Emory embodied the true meaning of what southern hospitality actually entails.
No grits, no Tara, no Scarlet O'Hara--just people willing to work, give and meet the world halfway.
Danielle Service is a graduate intern in University Conferences and served as venue press chief at the Cox Hall Press Operations Center during the Olympics.