What do YOU do on your summer vacation?
For Deb Harm, time off from work every summer is spent watching people make memories and providing her with countless stories to sell while she sells T-shirts during the College World Series.
Every June, Harm takes time off from her job as a staff assistant in the athletic department at Wayne State College to work for a Council Bluffs-based company that sells College World Series gear during the annual two-week tournament at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.
Harm will usually camp out in one of more than a dozen displays at hotels in Omaha and will sell everything from T-shirts to miniature bats to fans attending the annual summer classic that features the top college baseball teams in the country.
And the stories – oh, the stories she can tell.
“That’s really what it is,” she said. “You’re sitting there like you’re selling hot dogs on the corner and they either want to buy or they don’t and want to visit or they don’t. A lot of times, it’s people with spare time on their hands, and I have spare time too and I’m looking for somebody to visit. I really enjoy storytelling and I think there are connections to people all over the place that we don’t even know about.”
Harm was looking to earn some extra money after her divorce when she met Eileen Petit on a visit to Udder Delights one summer evening.
“Eileen was Tim Bebee’s secretary at Michael Foods for a lot of years, and we had worked together at the Catbacker golf tournament every year,” Harm said. “I noticed that she had a nice tan and was asking where she’d been, and she said that she worked for her son at the College World Series every year.”
Pippitt encouraged Harm to get a hold of her son, and in the spring of 2007 he contacted Harm and told him he had an opening. She worked for him for a few years before starting to work for Dean Miller, who had set up 14 locations around the city and at Rosenblatt Stadium, the original home of the CWS before it moved to the new downtown stadium in 2011.
While Harm has spent most of her time in the air-conditioned comfort of the hotels, she did try it out at a tent one summer.
“I’d been in a hotel for a couple of years and kept thinking I was missing all the fun out at Rosenblatt with the tents,” she said, laughing. “One year I whined about it and he put me in a tent and it was like 1,000 degrees in there. After that, I was fine with working the hotels.”
It was at those hotel locations that she not only had fun and sold a lot of gear, but struck up conversations and made connections with people of all kinds, from fans of one of the eight teams that play in the tournament to Warren Buffett.
“I had told my son, Cory, that you never know who you’re going to meet, and one year I had Cassie with me and we were at the Hilton and Warren Buffett came to our table,” she said. “I was in college at the time and had received the Susan Buffett Scholarship, so I went over to talk with him and he was really nice.”
She and her daughter, Cassie, met ESPN on-field reporter Erin Andrews one summer, and that same summer she had an encounter with another ESPN personality that she didn’t recognize until after he had given her some good-natured ribbing during the broadcast of a game that evening.
“ESPN was staying at our hotel that year, and Orel Hersheiser came to the table and I didn’t know who he was at the time,” Harm said. “He was looking for a triple-XL T-shirt and I was giving him a good-natured ribbing about not being big enough for one. I saw that he had an ESPN lanyard on and I talked with him and said I was finishing a degree in journalism and asked if he had any tips about getting into broadcasting. He gave me a couple of pointers and then said, ‘By the way – I’m Orel,’ and I knew I should have known him, but it wasn’t until later when I was listening and heard his name and then remembered it from when my dad would watch games on TV, and he put in a shout out to the ladies at the T-shirt table at the hotel who were giving him a hard time.”
Accommodations during the College World Series are hard to come by and very expensive, so Harm would usually rely on the kindness of friends she knew who lived in the Omaha area.
One summer, all her friends were either out of town or had others staying at their houses, so she spent one tournament in a rather unusual location – a convent.
“The hotels double and triple their rates (during the CWS) so you have to find your own housing, and one year I was desperate,” she said. “I talked with Sister Cindy, who was our campus minister here at the time, and she directed me to a convent in north Omaha and I stayed with 12 little nuns at this convent.”
Harm’s room consisted of a bed, a chair and a small desk – which was good enough for her, but staying there provided a sharp contrast to the work she was doing.
“Sister Cindy gave me a tour of the place and these nuns were all watching the game and asking me who was going to win, but these nuns had nothing compared to who I was selling these T-shirts to,” she said. “Money didn’t matter to these people and I’d be at this swanky hotel selling merchandise to people who’d pull out big wads of money. It put things into perspective for me.”
For Harm, the fun part of the vacation isn’t in making the sales, but making the people connections that she writes about on her Facebook page every summer.
“We were at the Hilton one year when the tournament was still at Rosenblatt, and TCU had made it for the first time and there was a huge contingent of TCU fans at the hotel I was working at, and we had a great location,” she said. “They’d hang out at the bar near our table and yuck it up with us, and every time we’d get a box full of 48 T-shirts, somebody would come over with a wad of $100 bills and buy the whole box. They’d pay $26 a shirt for a box of 48, because their bookstore back home didn’t have any of these shirts.”
Among the many stories she’s shared on her social media was one of an elderly gentlemen who bought a T-shirt from Harm and said her counting change back to him reminded him of his recently-deceased wife.
“They had owned a hardware store, and even when technology took over and the register gave her the total change due, she would always count the change, coin by coin and dollar by dollar back to the customer,” Harm wrote. “And then he said she would touch the top of their hand and say, ‘We value you.’ He shared how over the years he had grown to love those words. And now, after she was gone, how he missed her voice and those words. Said it had been a long, long time since someone counted back the change to him. As he left, he thanked me for reminding him of those sweet times . . .”
“That’s enjoyable to me, to make those connections even for that brief period of time,” she said. “It’s that human connection and their stories, and if you’re quiet you can hear peoples’ stories. You just have to watch and listen.”
Harm said she’s not sure how long she’ll continue her annual summer sales vacation, but she has a ton of fond memories and stories from her experience. Maybe enough to write a book about it, but whether she does or not, it’s been an interesting experience to say the least.
“The people that you meet and the stories that come up are just special,” she said. “It’s a fun vacation and a chance to meet people and watch their enjoyment. They’re making good memories and having a good time, and it’s fun to be the T-shirt lady in the corner watching all of that.”