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Ashland innkeepers escaped from D.C. to B&B

Deedie Runkel, longtime owner of Anne Hathaway’s Bed and Breakfast, is a writer and natural-born storyteller, one who loves interaction with people and — before her Ashland life — worked in Washington, D.C. as chief of Public Affairs and Congressional Relations for the Peace Corps.

As she relates in her witty new book, “Scone by Scone: Tales From An Innkeeper’s Life,” she and her husband, David, an assistant to the U.S. Attorney General, both found themselves, at 60, leaving jobs and longing for something pleasurable — and outside the D.C. Beltway. What followed, 16 years ago, was a radical leap into an little artsy town in Oregon, one full of culture, interesting people and a challenging new lifestyle as hosts of a B&B.

Unbeknown to them, the journey as innkeepers would produce a cornucopia of fascinating tales, enough fodder for a book. Runkel’s appetite for positive social interplay was sharpened by the couple’s friendship with First Lady Barbara Bush, who encouraged her, before a Peace Corps jaunt to Senegal, to get the names and phone numbers of all volunteers she met, then, back in the U.S., phone their families.

The tradition not only brought great image boost to the Peace Corps, says Runkel, but made a lot of parents feel more secure about their children — and more proud of their donation to world peace. An admirer of the First Lady, who died shortly before she was interviewed for this article, Runkel says, “One time, she greeted David and me at a White House event by announcing (referring to their departments), ‘Look who’s here; it’s Peace and Justice!’”

Similar tales, on a smaller scale, flow from her entertaining book, calling to mind many friendships with Shakespeare-loving guests, who return to their inn many times over the years. One, a doctor in California, a longtime lodger and friend — and heart specialist — saved her life, she says. Her pacemaker went haywire and “I was dying.” Local physicians weren’t resolving the problem so she got him on the phone and he told physicians what to do, after which she stabilized.

As everyone knows, a roaring all-night party put on by college kids next door can drive innkeepers (and guests) crazy. No one slept. But early the next morning, when the kids were trying to sleep off hangovers, the Runkels and their guests got out pots, pans and wooden spoons and paraded up and down the driveway between the houses, getting noisy revenge — and lots of laughs on both sides.

Then there was the case of the missing necklace, almost worthy of an Agatha Christie mystery. The owner of the “very special” jewels accused the help of the crime, and demanded a thorough search, with interviews of all employees.

“What we learned over time is that when a guest asks more than seven or eight questions (before checking in), it indicates someone is not going to be happy. When that kind of crisis happens, I just get calmer and calmer, though we were rattled and had 16 guests to think about. We had the staff turn her room upside down, but she suggested they would plant the necklace when they did. When she got home, the lady called and said it was found in her things — but she didn’t apologize.”

Once, a church called, wanting to send their stressed-out pastor on a vacation with a night on the town. They were poor as church mice and couldn’t afford a play, but someone gave them tickets in the front row and then another person presented them with flowers, explaining those seats were always used by her late mother and she did the flower ritual every evening for whomever sat there.

“It was so touching. They just couldn’t believe their good fortune.”

Becoming innkeepers was a huge shift of lifestyle, says Runkel, and their Washington friends could scarcely believe they “jumped from public service to serving the public.” In addition, being elbow-to-elbow 24/7 with a spouse was challenging enough to get a therapist on the case, she adds.

“It’s all been so worth it,” she adds. “The guests are very fond of us. It’s a surprising thing for us, everyone being as interested in us as in the food we’re making. It’s been a great match between us and the guests.”

What does it take?

“You have to be outgoing, flexible. People who come in want to feel confident they’re going to be taken care of. They have lots of questions about the town and the theater.”

David Runkel, who was a journalist with the Philadephia Bulletin for 20 years, says, “She’s done a fabulous job of recounting these stories. It’s been a wonderful experience. Being an innkeeper in Ashland is a very different experience than other places. It’s not a romantic getaway. People who come to Ashland want to discuss the plays — and also politics — over breakfast. We have lively breakfasts. Our guests do interesting things in life and people get to know us and each other and like to come back here.”

The title of the book, “Scone By Scone,” is detailed in the hilarious first chapter where the previous owner officiously and tediously tries to teach his ritual of scone-making, since scones are often the heart of a B&B. The gist of the tale is that he commanded “never touch the dough” or they will turn into rocks. She couldn’t master the recipe until one lodger told her the opposite was true — you really have to give it a good beating.

Reflecting on years of inn-keeping in a Shakespeare town, she says, “In every Shakespeare play, there’s a servant, who serves as a link between protagonist and antagonist. The servant’s element of unconditional love is always present, so if what we’re doing is expressing love, well, that’s pretty good.”

The book, her second, is self-published by Book Baby. Leaving the inn to managers, they embark June 8 on a five-month book tour through 37 states.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.