FORT LEE, Va. – Walking toward a horizon silhouetted by the setting sun is the quintessential “happy ending” of movies about characters who ended their story well despite tumultuous past events.
The scene at the Lee Club here recently was in step with such imagery when Setsuko Lantz ceremoniously ended a 46-year federal service career in the very facility where she spent a quarter century climbing the promotion ladder to its top position as the business and catering manager.
“For the last 25 years, Fort Lee has been my home,” the native of Japan said in her retirement speech before roughly 60 people. “I fell in love with Fort Lee and all the wonderful officers and enlisted people as well as civilians. That made it a wonderful place. I am proud to be a small part of Fort Lee. My only goal was to please you with my work. I hope I have succeeded.”
Surely she had, considering Maj. Gen. Rodney D. Fogg, former CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general, and retired Lt. Gen. Gwen Bingham were among the friends, coworkers and family present for the monumental sendoff. Serving as the guest speaker, Bingham elaborated on Lantz’ success during remarks.
“Forty-six years of federal service – that’s commendable…,” said the former Quartermaster General and one of the first women in the Army to earn the rank of three-star general. “We’re so appreciative of you and what you’ve done in supporting all the patrons coming through Fort Lee. [Their] morale was significantly bolstered as a direct result of your can-do spirit, your leadership and service-oriented persona.”
Smiles and hugs were abundant amongst the crowd of well-wishers. Positive energy and cheerfulness permeated the room.
The sweetness of the moment could only be enriched by understanding what it took to get there – a blockbuster tale about a life demanding strength, resilience and perseverance. Lantz’ stroll toward the sunset was beset by obstacles of all kinds, making the journey difficult to overcome.
Lantz takes us back to 1969, the year she married a U.S. Naval officer in her native Japan. The news did not sit well with parents still feeling the sting of a past war.
“You have to remember my dad is from Hiroshima,” she said of the city where U.S. forces dropped a nuclear bomb in 1945, helping to end World War II. “When the war was done, my dad’s home was nothing but flat. My family was mad I married an American. How can you do that? They looked down on the marriage with disrespect.”
Lantz herself was born in Nagasaki, the second nuclear bomb target. Thus, there were abundant reasons for family hatred toward Americans in addition to the cultural norm of a country that is not especially receptive to outsiders. What Lantz felt for her future husband; however, was far more powerful.
“I was in love with him,” she said.
Disowned by her family, Lantz left Japan with her husband – first stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then a California base in 1972. There, Lantz started working with Navy Morale, Welfare and Recreation, serving in positions such as payroll clerk and food and beverage manager. In 1980, she began working as an assistant manager at the officers club, and in 1985, Lantz was promoted to club manager, a job she held for 10 years.
Lantz’ husband deployed to Vietnam shortly after they moved to California. During that time, she returned to her home country where a more receptive family received her and two daughters, one of whom they had never met. It seemed time had closed the divides.
“They said they were sorry; said we had a great family; and started respecting us,” said Lantz.
In 1985, Lantz and her husband parted ways, leaving her to raise two teenagers alone. It would be the moment in her life’s movie when everything seemed lost amid the hurt, disappointment and disorientation of a foreigner alone in America. The scene would quickly end though with a gathering of her courage and a feisty vow to work even harder at raising her daughters and continuing to pursue career goals.
“I didn’t know the United States too much while I was in California, but I always remembered education is No. 1,” she said. “I sent both kids to the university. If they are educated – if they become successes in their lives – it is my success.”
After her daughters completed college, Lantz moved to Virginia and took on the first of several positions at the Lee Club. To those who have never traveled to the South from California, an adjustment is in order, she said.
“It was a challenge when I got here. There was a culture difference, working for the Army-operated club was nothing like the Navy and Marines, and I was a woman.”
Not many of the female gender were club managers, recalled Lantz, noting she had to “stand up for herself” on numerous occasions because of negative perceptions.
“At the time,” she recalled, “it was easy for me to quit, but I said, ‘If I leave here, I will give them the opportunity to continue treating people like this.’ It is not a battle. You need to have respect as human beings, and it is the humanity that really brings people together.”
A devout Buddhist, Lantz’ religious beliefs and much more were put to test when two younger and least-experienced managers were hired as quasi-supervisors, causing workplace disruption. She suffered the humiliation of having to set up office in the corner of a warehouse. She was required to report at 6 a.m. to a facility that does not accommodate customers until midday, and had to switch her title to “assistant manager” knowing that it was meant to demean her authority. The changes were stark and devastating to her and the employees, she said.
“All of the wait-staff came in and started crying,” remembered Lantz.
“They said, ‘You got to do something.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not doing anything. I know what’s going on.’”
Lantz said she was compliant and patient in the face of obvious hostility. She resolved to stick it out until things came to a head. The strength to endure came from her faith, reinforced through the ancient Buddhist practice of chanting, which helps to calm the mind.
“It brings positive energy and shows you the potential in your own life,” she said.
After roughly 18 months, the workplace turmoil ceased when the two hires quit. For Lantz, the measure of relief felt by other staff was offset by compassion. She “felt bad for both women,” feeling they had been misemployed.
Those involved with the muddle have long departed, and Lantz does not dwell on such moments. Doing so, she said, is counterproductive in her mind. Instead, she tackled her work with heightened commitment and diligence, accompanied by a pledge to improve her communication skills as a result of what transpired.
In the club management career field, communication is among several critical skills needed to fulfill mission requirements. Tom Green, FMWR’s chief of business operations and community recreation here, said the position not only requires the supervision of employees who facilitate retirements, changes of command, promotions and other events, but also the abilities to interface with superiors who often have lofty expectations. Lantz’ job was to effectively manage them without breaking the rules.
“It is a fine line to walk between being a business manager and what you want to be as a social director,” said Green. “You want to give everything you can, but you must be aware of restrictions, limitations and financial performance. That takes time and talent. She has it for sure.”
Green said the Lee Club, built during WWII, hosts roughly 140 events each year. The pace can be frenetic, but 75-year-old Lantz became famous for working long hours and moving at a pace resembling a blur between dining rooms, the kitchen and other locations. Yukari Anderson, an operations assistant who has worked under Lantz for more than 10 years, said she is hands-on to the fullest.
“She knows all of our jobs, and if we don’t have the people (to fill the positions) she always respects us and helps us until we’re finished,” she said.
Lantz said she will miss all aspects of the club operation but mostly the customer engagement, which was energizing and motivating even after hours of toil.
“Whenever a function was over, I didn’t like looking at all the mess,” she said. “But when the customer says, ‘Ms. Lantz, it was a great day, thank you.’ That’s good. I tell the staff, ‘They loved it. All you guys did it and thank you. Because of you guys, we did it and that’s what leads to another job.’”
There will not be another job after July 29, Lantz’ last day at the club. In the absence of work, she has plans to spend more time with her second husband, Eugene, and daughters Sherry and Diana and their grandchildren. Lantz also wants to be more supportive of the Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhist organization.
“I want to travel little by little to see things,” she said. “Also, I have a lot of furniture everywhere. I’m going to be selling all that stuff and getting organized.
“Furthermore, I like to do artwork. I’m going to art school.”
As an upcoming project, perhaps she should consider creating an oil-on-canvas featuring a silhouetted figure walking toward the horizon amid the backdrop of an imposing, setting sun.