'Going up' for the last time after 26 years

Published August 9, 2007

TAMPA - Hortensia Sotomayor knows something about ups and downs.

For 26 years, she has operated the manual elevator inside Tampa's old City Hall building, shuttling everyday people and politicians alike, one floor at a time.

Sotomayor, 75, turns her last crank and bids her final "watch your step" on Friday, when she retires.

"I'm going to miss it," a shy Sotomayor said, her smile remaining constant as she greeted dozens of well-wishers during a retirement party Wednesday.

A native of Oriente, Cuba, Sotomayor came to Tampa in 1968 with her husband, Ismael, and daughter Rita. She worked for years at a sewing factory before being hired in 1981 to operate the City Hall elevator.

"She was hesitant about applying for this job because of the language barrier," her daughter said. "I told her to just be herself, and people would take their time to be with you."

City employees say Sotomayor was the bridge between the English- and Spanish-speaking visitors to the building. If the elevator was the bloodline that kept City Hall employees and guests moving, Sotomayor was the heart that kept it pumping, they said.

"It's not necessarily the work she did for how long, but the personalizing she did," said Rose Ferlita, a former City Council member turned county commissioner. "If we knew half of the things she knows from what she heard in that elevator ..."

Bob Hoffrogge, a repairman for Otis Elevator Co., has serviced the old City Hall manual elevator since 1975. He added a counter to it in 1995, which has tallied more than 4-million starts since then.

It's the only full-time manual elevator in town, with a full-time operator. "It's as dependable as the new one," Hoffrogge said, referring to an electric elevator in the building.

Hazel Pines had served as City Council member Charlie Miranda's aide when she retired in 2003. She had been with the city 45 years and shared many lunches and cups of coffee with Sotomayor.

"Hortensia was my partner," Pines said. "She will be well remembered around here."

A new full-time operator will take over Sotomayor's job for now, though no one can ever fill her void.

"You're irreplaceable," City Attorney David L. Smith told her.

Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.