Ritz-Carlton concierge extraordinaire

Reserving an entire movie theater so Prince could enjoy a film? No problem.

Transforming a ballroom into a basketball court so the New York Knicks could get in a little practice? Easy. (Use masking tape to simulate floor markings.)
Arranging for an airplane to fly overhead with a “Will you marry me?” banner? Consider it done.

To those among us who have trouble just making it out of the house in the morning with both wallet and keys, Jon Winke would be considered a miracle worker.

Mr. Winke, who was born and died in blue-collar Berwyn, rose to become the chief concierge at Chicago’s Ritz-Carlton, revered by other concierges, and loved by many who say he gave them their start in the hospitality industry.

In fact, the Michigan Avenue hotel is receiving sympathy messages and flower arrangements from seasoned travelers across the nation who say they will miss Mr. Winke. One wrote on legacy.com: “He is truly one of the reasons I only stay at The Ritz when I am in Chicago.”
“Celebrities, entertainers, movie stars and heads of state asked for John,” said Tom Segesta, the hotel’s general manager.

Mr. Winke died of a heart attack June 30 as his wife of 35 years, Raquel, drove him to Vanguard MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn, where he was born 58 years ago.

With his teddy-bear build and moustache, “The Wink” looked like he was ready to sit alongside Bears “superfan” Bob Swerski and exalt Coach Ditka.

But a closer look at Mr. Winke’s work uniform revealed the crossed gold keys on his collar, a symbol of Les Clefs d’Or (French for “keys of gold,) a global organization of concierges.

He was kind, funny and unflappable. No one can remember him losing his cool during his 37-year career at the Ritz, Segesta said. “The miracles he would perform came so naturally to him.”

“He was the kind of guy that other concierges would reach out to, if they needed advice and assistance,” said Brent Barker, a former concierge at The Drake and other hotels.

For Mr. Winke, snaring last-minute theater tickets and seats at hot restaurants was just another day at the office. “When people give me an impossible request, it might take a few minutes. If they need a miracle, it might take a little longer,” he said upon his 2011 induction into the Chicago Concierge Hall of Fame.

He ticked off some of those everyday feats when he was interviewed by ConciergePreferred.com. A guest from Iowa mailed him his leather jacket, asking if Mr. Winke could get it fixed. While on vacation in Mexico, he helped a guest sell his Bears playoff tickets.

Once, he told the Sun-Times, he rallied Ritz staffers to go to the McClurg Court theater and buy 100 tickets for the Michael Douglas-Demi Moore film, “Disclosure.” A Saudi prince wanted to see the movie, but didn’t want anyone sitting within three rows of him, Mr. Winke explained.

When a mother of the bride lost her contact lenses before her daughter’s wedding, he tracked down her California optician and handed her new lenses within hours of the ceremony. He got Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder front-row tickets for the Bulls, and arranged a night on the town for Mick Jagger.

He even brought a rocking chair from his home so a guest could soothe her baby to sleep.

“He was a hero to tens of thousands of visitors to your city—probably hundreds of thousands,” said Tommy Dean, the concierge at the Four Seasons hotel in Austin, Texas.

Mr. Winke also dealt with more prosaic problems. At least 50 times a day, guests asked him for directions. And he learned to listen closely to non-Chicago accents. Often, visitors seemed to be saying they wanted opera tickets and their “massages.” On closer scrutiny, it turned out they wanted “Oprah” tickets and their messages.

Mr. Winke enjoyed playing for the Ritz Lions on the Near North Hotel Softball League. His traded his calm demeanor to become “The Closer”—a fierce hitter and pitcher who competed against the staff of The Drake, the Four Seasons, the Hyatt and other hotels.

He grew up in Westchester and attended Proviso West High School and Loyola University. In 1975, he started at the Ritz as a bellman. A young woman who worked in housekeeping caught his eye. She didn’t want to date anyone from work, but he pursued the lovely Raquel Silva, a native of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, telling her “Don’t get married. . . .till I ask you.”

He was indefatigable. She was a single mom at the time, and he used to tell her: “Every time I see your son, I feel like he needs a daddy.” They wed in 1978.

The Riverside resident loved all of Chicago’s sports teams. Mr. Winke served as president of the Chicago Hotel Concierge Association and on the board of Les Clefs d’Or USA, said his son, Sean Winke.

In addition to his wife and his son Sean, he is survived by his children, Carlos Cuevas, Ivan Winke, Jon Winke, Jr., Raquel Lynn Winke and Cherizar Winke; his brother, Robert; and his sister, Linda Lee Edwards.

He was laid to rest at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside, near Fresh Meadows course, where he recently golfed with Sean. “In his suit jacket, I put the scorecard from when we last played, and I wrote ‘ I love you Dad’ on his golf ball,” his son said, “I put it in his suit jacket so it will be with him forever.
by maureen o’donnell modonnell@suntimes.com


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