5 to 8

Dec 24, 2022

I received an email on Wednesday about the passing of Michele Winfrey, the elevator operator at Memorial Stadium. I didn't know her name until that email, and I don't think she knew mine, but I wanted to tell you about her.

First off, I need to explain how the elevator works at the stadium. It's a bit complicated. Stay with me here because you're going to be several paragraphs in and wondering why I'm sharing so many details about the elevator. But it will make sense, I promise.

When the new tower was built on the west side in 2007-2008, there were several elevators added. In the center of the stadium (near the Grange statue) are the elevators to all of the suites and club seats. You need special access to that elevator lobby (suite or club seat tickets). On the ends of the Great West Hall are two elevators - the one to the south is mostly for people riding up to the West Balcony; the one of the north end is used by, well, everyone.

That elevator is basically the most complicated elevator in the state of Illinois. It's the one that Michele worked. I didn't know all of her duties, but from my observation, here's what she had to manage:

  • The main levels where she would transport people were 1, 5, and 8. 1 is the Great West Hall, 5 is the West Balcony, and 8 is the Pressbox.
  • There's also 2, 3, and 4, and all of those are back-of-house floors. Someone moving a big rolling dumpster to pick up trash from concession stands might be trying to get from 2 to 3. And because of this, there are certain times when those floors are locked out (only people on the elevator, not trash).
  • The coaches also use this elevator to get to the booth. So just before the game starts (and just before the second half starts), someone makes the call on the radio and all elevator operations come to a halt to wait for whatever coaches are observing the game up in the booth. Everyone (media trying to get to the pressbox, fans trying to get to the West Balcony) has to wait so that the elevator can be an express trip to the 8th floor.
  • There are also two lines in the elevator lobby. One line for media trying to get to the pressbox, one line for fans trying to get to the balcony. Michele would be seated in a chair by the elevator buttons (with certain keys to lock out certain floors), the doors would open, she'd load the media in the back of the elevator (they're going to 8) and then the fans in the front of the elevator (they're going to 5). Her main job - load the elevator with media in the back and fans in the front, go up to 5, continue up to 8, then go back down to 1 to do it all over again (but most of the time she's transporting some media or pressbox folks back down from 8 to 1 and sometimes stopping at 5 again because there's a fan or two trying to go back down).
  • That might sound simple but it's not. Maintenance workers would hit the button wanting be picked up on 3 (even though they're not supposed to use the elevator until, like, 45 minutes after the game). In the middle of trying to get coaches from 1 to 8 someone is hitting the button in the balcony trying to go back down to 1 without having to take the stair tower ramps. There are a lot of rules.

And then there's me. The only 5 to 8 guy in the stadium. I thought so much this season about how I complicated her duties. Upon hearing that Michele had passed away, my very first thought was that I never thanked her for letting me do my thing. So this article is an attempt to thank her.

Fans go 1 to 5. It's mostly elderly fans who would struggle with the stair tower ramps, but there's also some "that looks a lot easier" fans who prefer to ride the elevator instead of walking the ramps. Media go 1 to 8. It's the only way to get to the pressbox. There's not a ramp or stairway that can get you there (besides an emergency stairway). Elevator is the only option.

5 to 8? Just me. I'm that guy who got two tickets in the West Balcony (my personal "pressbox in the stands") but also kept his access to the pressbox. Which meant that when the elevator doors open on 5, she had two duties: 99% of those people need to go down to 1. One guy sometimes needed to go up from 5 to 8. I'm not exaggerating - I'm the only person with tickets on 5 and access to 8. And the only way to go 5 to 8 is the elevator. All of those complicated duties listed above... and then I have to throw in "hey, can I go from 5 up to 8 at halftime to grab the halftime stats printout?"

And she was always so incredibly nice about it. Huge smile every time she saw me. I'm not sure I can properly emphasize what that meant to me. I'm entering the elevator with this "I'm so, so sorry but can you take me up to 8?" and it didn't seem to bother her at all.

Let me give you another example. For one game I'm running late and am going to miss kickoff. So I "cheat" (which really isn't cheating) and get in the media line instead of the fan line (because I do have this credential hanging around my neck - I'm just not headed to the pressbox, I'm headed to the stands). The media line always gets on. The fan line might have to wait 2-3 elevator cycles.

So I get on and she says "going to 5?" and has me stand directly behind her chair. She loads the media in the back (they're going to 8), the fans in the front (they're going to 5), and me right behind her chair, getting on early because I'm media and getting off early because I'm a fan.

That same game I recorded From The Stands in the balcony after the game and then headed up to the pressbox to publish it. So once again, she runs the elevator up to 5 to get some fans and here's one guy gets on needing to go up to 8, not down to 1. No problem, she says. Big smile. I keep throwing curveballs and she keeps hitting line drives.

That type of kindness is special to me. Identify that the person is in "so sorry, so sorry" mode and diffuse the moment with kindness instead of exacerbating it with frustration. She already has all of these "don't pick up on 2 or 3 until 45 minutes after the game and make sure you're back down to 1 the moment the coaching call hits the radio" rules to follow, I'm adding more complications, and she never seemed to get frustrated.

The email from Kent Brown letting the media know that Michele had passed away included a statement from Kent saying that Michele "was one of the kindest people I've met." I 100% agree. It's amazing to realize how far a little kindness can go. It's the simplest way to diffuse any difficult situation (and there were plenty of those with full elevators and frustrated fans).

My condolences to Michele's family. I can't imagine losing someone at this time of year. Please know that your mom/sister/friend made an impact on me. Kindness is undefeated.

Especially when someone needs to go from 5 to 8.


ATOillini on December 24, 2022 @ 01:59 PM

“Kindness is undefeated.”

I have a feeling I’m going to remember that and hopefully will put it to good use.

Douglascountyillinifan on December 24, 2022 @ 02:03 PM

I had the pleasure of working with Michele before she retired from the school of social work. Truly gracious and kind. Thank you for this memory.

IlliniJoe81 on December 25, 2022 @ 05:20 PM

Thank you for that. This kind of article is the good side of the internet. It’s the exact opposite of Missouri trolls on Twitter.

Kindness is undefeated and I hope your kindness in writing this article defeated some of the hurt from Bragging Rights this year.

This is what is good about sports. Bringing people together and lifting up ordinary people in extraordinary ways.

gman on December 26, 2022 @ 10:42 AM

Quite a lady !

BanTheCharge on December 29, 2022 @ 11:15 AM

Haven't covered a game or used a MS elevator since 2008 but I knew exactly who you were talking about and immediately remembered the kindness you're referencing for a scared 21-year-old knucklehead kid. She truly has had quite the impact.

MJC73 on December 30, 2022 @ 10:41 AM

It's been some time since I have been to the site, and despite everything happening with the football and basketball programs, this is the first article I clicked on to read...and I'm really glad I did.

Kindness is undefeated. Need to hang on to that one.

Having lost a family member on Christmas Eve a year ago, thoughts are with Michele's family and friends. It's always difficult to lose a loved one, but this time of year can be especially tough.

on July 3, 2023 @ 03:59 PM


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