Preserving the past creates future work

Raymond Roy – Master Tour Guide, Preservation Society of Newport, Newport, Rhode Island

Feature | Newport, Rhode Island | 28 October 2021
Before joining the Preservation Society of Newport County, Master Tour Guide Raymond Roy had a career in the Navy and then as representative in the pharmaceutical industry. A few years into his retirement he decided to go back to work and at 77 is showing no signs of slowing down. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“The Breakers mansion had 4,600 people come and visit in one day last week! Can you believe it?” exclaims Raymond Roy, the master tour guide for the Preservation Society of Newport County in Newport Rhode Island.

This magnificent 70-room mansion is located in Newport, Rhode Island on Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay, and is about 74 miles south of Boston and 180 miles from New York City.

For 14 years Raymond has worked as a Master Tour Guide taking visitors on a journey as far back into time as the Colonial era and Gilded Age, showcasing three centuries of extraordinary historic American architecture, decorative arts, and landscape design. His path to working at the Preservation Society involved joining the Navy, and a long illustrious career in the pharmaceutical industry.

“I grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts and I was born into a Roman Catholic family. I am the youngest of four boys,” Roy shares. “I went to a private liberal arts college up in New Hampshire, and then I joined the Navy. Holy mackerel was that a transition for me! First, I went to Norfolk, Virginia and then to Vietnam.”

After completing his time in the Navy, Raymond returned to Massachusetts, and worked in his family’s business before transitioning again to work for Searle Pharmaceuticals, now a subsidiary of Pfizer.

“I absolutely loved the Navy and didn’t want my time there to end. I went back home to help with my family business and then I got a letter from the Navy asking me to come back, but by that time my dad had had a stroke, so I didn’t go back. I started working for Searle first as a sales representative on the road every day, and then I moved to the headquarters in Chicago. I was the king of my castle,” he recalls beaming with much enthusiasm. “I was on the road for 22 years before moving to the Chicago office. I was at the company for 35 years before retiring in 2003 when I was 59.”

But a long-term retirement was not in the cards for Roy. Four years into life as a retiree, a good friend of his who happened to work at the Preservation Society suggested he apply for a role as a tour guide.

The Newport mansions in which Raymond conducts live tours showcase historic American architecture from the Gilded Age. Many of the homes were built with French and Italian influences and were owned by wealth American families such as Astor, Berwind and Vanderbilt. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“I wasn’t really interested at first and I put it off for a couple of years. She finally convinced me, to fill out an application, I was hired and began as a tour guide for The Breakers mansion three days a week,” he says.

“This organization has been very good to me, and I love working here. I have been recognized with various awards in my time here,” Raymond says with much pride and excitement in his voice.

“They knew I liked to talk, and I have always loved history,” Raymond says of the skills that helped him land his job. He cites the importance of good communication skills with fellow tour guides and tourists as crucial to the role. His experience in training from his pharmaceutical job also comes in handy as he often trains and mentors other guides. “I mentor all the guides and offer them training. I do all the VIP tours being the master tour guide, so I am constantly meeting and communicating with people from all over.”

“We have visitors from all over the country, from Europe, and tons of folks from Australia in the summertime which is their winter. We also have the cruise ships dock and off-load visitors for our tours,” he proudly reveals. “These mansions are a big draw for this town and for the state’s economy. We actually just celebrated our 40 millionth tour in July of 2019, so that’s a huge milestone for us,” says Raymond adjusting his tie.

Mansions such as The Elms, The Breakers and Marble House, were homes to the ultra-wealthy American business magnates of the latter half of the 19th century, referred to as the Gilded Age, including the Edward Berwind, Cornelius Vanderbilt and the Astor family.

According to Roy, “they modelled themselves after European nobility because they wanted to be America’s nobility,” building homes that were influenced by “French Chateaux and Italian Renaissance Palaces.” “They had English butlers and they modelled everything after France. The chefs and cooks were French or spoke French and the menus were even printed in French,” he emphasizes.

The Newport mansions often served as summer “cottages” for the wealthy looking to escape their busy city life. The architects made extensive use of the new technologies that were emerging. For example, this communications system helped the House Manager ensure that all the staff could be contacted and given tasks in these sprawling households. ILO Photos/ Kevin Cassidy
These homes also showcased some of the latest technologies of the age that enabled such opulent homes to be managed efficiently, some staffed with more than forty servants, and cater to the comfort of their residences. This included electric lighting, hot water cisterns, internal communication systems, heating and cooling systems, ice-making machines, and other modern inventions.

The quality workmanship, elaborate designs and intricate details in the architecture are a nod to the patience, thoughtful planning and quality service from that time, something Roy says you don’t see much of now especially with the younger generation.

“Everything is about now, now, now, especially with young people,” he states. “I see a lot of that in the young people we hire here too. They are great but they have very little appreciation for this history, and they don’t learn the houses in detail like I did.”

“They also prefer to do the audio tours instead of the live and interactive ones, and on many occasions, I encourage them to learn more about the house and own the tours. The other day one of them came up to me and said, ‘I love that house, and I am so glad you convinced me to learn it,’ and that to me was very rewarding and gave me even more pride in the work I do,” he underscores with palpable passion.

At 77 years of age, the former retiree is showing no signs of slowing down. “I really don’t intend on stopping unless I really have to,” he declares. “I had knee replacement surgery a while ago and I went nuts staying home for two months! I couldn’t wait to get back to work.”

When asked what work means to him Roy responds, “Work is the best thing you can do. If you are just sitting around at home, you’re just going to drink or smoke or get into something unhealthy.” His advice to young people including his grand nieces and nephews about work is simply “study hard and work hard to get jobs.”

For Roy it is clear that his hard work ethic, motivation, love of history, and good people skills will continue to bring more and more tourists to visit the beautiful Newport mansions, keeping the rich history and state’s economy alive.