Ferdinand Sperl: The International Life of a Swiss Hotelkeeper
Among the papers of Ferdinand Sperl, there is a small black book in which he chronicled the stages of his life from his childhood to the 1960s. This chronicle is very interesting as it shows first, how the son of a hotelier was thoroughly prepared for following in his family's footsteps as a fourth generation hotelier, and second, how his arrival in the United States in 1939 and the Second World War led him to an unexpected career in military intelligence after which he returned to his career as hotelier.
What is striking in the biography is its international scope. Ferdinand's grandfather had owned a hotel in Czechoslovakia, and his father was the owner of a very renowned hotel in the Swiss capital of Berne and he saw to it that his son had an excellent education, first in the humanities for 5 years, then in a commercial school which as ecole superieure was on the same academic level as the gymnasium which prepares students for entering universities in Europe.
Traveling was also a facet in Ferdinand's education, and after WWII he traveled every year to near and far destinations despite being fully involved in managing and continuously upgrading the Hotel Pere Marquette in Peoria and being involved in various associations. Ferdinand Sperl retired from the Hotel Pere Marquette in 1978 and then began a new career as real estate broker from his home. He also chronicled his experiences in the US military for his military colleagues in an unpublished typescript of about 400 pages
from which his widow allowed us to copy a few selections. Throughout his life Ferdinand Sperl remained at heart a Swiss using his Bernese dialect with the Swiss in Peoria and returning again and again to the land of his roots until a few years before his death. Yet he always was also a citizen of the world, being conversant in several languages - German,
French, Italian, English -, interested in politics and finances, reading The New York Times every morning and only stopping to learn new things in the last few years of his life.
Franz Peter Ferdinand Sperl was born on June 6, 1918 in the Hotel Bristol in Bern which was owned by his father Johann Baptist Sperl (1874-February 1969) who was a citizen of Bolligen, Canton Bern. His mother, Martha Barbara Helfer (1882-June 1969), came from Murten. The couple also had a daughter Gertrude (born 1909). Since Ferdinand's parents were busy with the management of the hotel, Ferdinand had a nanny, Rosa Schumacher, from birth until he was 12 in 1930.
Hotel Bristol, Today
Born in the year of the terrible influenza epidemic, he almost died as an infant in 1919. From 1924-1928 he attended kindergarten and the first four grades in a private school in Bern. As was the custom in the Canton of Bern, he entered a public gymnasium in fifth grade in 1929; this was also
the year when his parents retired and moved to a suburb of Bern. Ferdinand began taking piano lessons in second grade, in 1929 he also became a boy scout. In 4th grade children in the Canton of Berne began to study French, in 7th grade they began to study English. Ferdinand excelled in mathematics, and in 1932 he won a medal in a skiing competition with the boy scouts. His father, who had been born in a small town in Bohemia, Bischof Teinitz, took his son on a trip to Regensburg, Pilsen, Bischof Teinitz,
Munich, the Chiemsee and the castles of Ludwig II of Bavaria. In the spring of 1933 Ferdinand graduated from the Progymnasium and entered the Gymnasium. This was followed by a trip to Ttibingen, Stuttgart and Karlsruhe in Germany, the Vosges mountains and Alsace in France.
In 1934 he left the Gymnasium in Bern after one year and transferred to the Ecole Superieure de Commerce in French-speaking Neuchatel. Apparently he was a bright student because he was able to do a whole year during the spring and summer of 1934, so he entered the third year in the fall of 1934. In his fourth year he worked on a competitive dissertation on the topic of the Hotel Industry in Switzerland for which he won a first prize at his graduation in June 1936. At the same time he also took first prize in rowing in a crew of eight. His parents also took him on a trip to Belgium and the World Fair in Brussels. Although his father had been a hotel owner, his son had to learn all the different tasks of hotel work from the bottom up. In 1936/37 he first was a
cooking apprentice and a cook at the Bellevue Palace Hotel in Bern where he was part of the crew that served Queen Wilhelmina of Holland, the Duke of Windsor and King Farouk of Egypt. In the summer of 1937 he began the military training which is obligatory for every able-bodied Swiss man; he was stationed with the Anti-Tank Artillery unit in Thun (BE) but became ill and was given leave. In the fall his father took him to Paris and then to London where he started to work as a waiter at the Hotel Royale which was part of Imperial Hotels Ltd. In 1938 he transferred to the Hotel Imperial as room clerk, then to the Dorchester Hotel where he first worked as waiter in the Grill Room, then became the comptroller. During his time in London he also took trips to Liverpool, Brighton and some other British cities. In the fall of 1938 he returned to Switzerland through Holland, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, Germany.
After only ten days at home he went to Genoa, Italy to work as room clerk at the Hotel Colombia, a hotel which was part of the Italian Company of Grand Hotels, CIGA.
In 1939 he transferred to Venice working in the front office of the Reale Danieli Hotel and at the Hotel Excelsior at the Lido (the beach island of Venice). In August he was recalled for his military service in Switzerland where he finished his basic training in October. Then
he received leave to go to the United States as an exchange student in a program of Cornell University's Hotel School. After having visited a friend in Genoa, he embarked on an Italian ship for his trip via Naples to New York. He did some sightseeing in New York,
then visited the family of a professor at Cornell University whose son was to be an exchange student in the same program in Switzerland, and by Christmas he was in Chicago where he began to work as mail clerk at the Hotel Stevens (later the Conrad Hilton), 'the World's Largest Hotel.' In early spring of 1940 he was promoted to the Catering Office. In the summer he took a trip to Niagara Falls, New York and Atlantic City. He also met Miriam Eliezer who was to become his wife. In 1941 he bought a small,
three-year old 6-cylinder Ford for $225.00; he also took out papers to become a citizen.
Postcard of The Conrad Hilton Hotel (Formerly Hotel Stevens)
Sperl was drafted and told that he was to report to Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois, on Monday, December 8, 1941! In January 1942 he was sent to Ft. Monmouth in New Jersey where the signal intelligence was located. Because of his linguistic abilities and especially because of his knowledge of Italian, he was trained as a cryptanalyst. He married Miriam on a furlough weekend in New York in February 1942. Twice he was sent to Officer School and twice he was removed because he was not a citizen, but eventually became an American citizen in June. In the summer he was promoted to corporal, then completed Officer School at Camp Davis in North Carolina and graduated as 2nd
Lieutenant on Christmas Day when he was already the father of a daughter born in November. In 1943 he had to report to Ft. Eustis in Virginia, then was an Intelligence Officer of an Automatic Weapons Anti-Aircraft Battalion in Ft. Sheridan near Chicago. He also was given intelligence training at Camp Ritchie in the Maryland Blue Ridge Mountains, became an assistant instructor and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant before being sent to Great Britain in September 1943.
In Britain he was assigned to the Combined Services Detailed Strategic Intelligence Center (CSDIC) and the General Officers Prisoners Camp near London. In 1944 he was moved to the Broadway Intelligence Staging Center in Cotswold and promoted to commanding Officer of Interrogation of Prisoners and assigned to HQ XII US Army Corps. He landed in Normandy in late June 1944. Assigned to the 2nd Cavalry division he helped liberate Orleans, Montargis and Nancy, was promoted to Captain and given a Bronze Star. His unit was beaten near Luneville by the 11th German Panzer Division Offensive in the Saar region. At Christmas he experienced the Battle of the Bulge. In October he had managed to meet his parents at the Swiss border near the Doubs river. In 1945 he conducted several secret missions connected with river crossings with the 2nd Cavalry Division; they moved through Trier and Coblenz to Frankfurt, then to Bayreuth and into the area of Pilsen in Czechoslovakia.
Stationed back in Germany, he rescued the Lipizzan horses from the famous Hofreitschule in Vienna that had been evacuated to near Bischof Teinitz from the advancing Russian troops and visited the graves of his grandparents who are buried in BischofTeinitz (today Horsovy Tyn). After May 1945 he helped organize the Intelligence Combined Operation Center, discharged 50,000 German soldiers of the 11th Panzer Corps, met a Russian tank division in Czechoslovakia, and in Regensburg he was involved in organizing the XII Corps Intelligence Center and was promoted to assistant G-2 Staff officer of XII Corps. He was able to take two short trips to Switzerland to visit family and friends, and in December returned to the United States. In 1946 he was discharged with the rank of Major. Then he accepted an offer as General Manager of the Aspen Company in Colorado. He managed an old hotel, three apartment buildings, 18 residences, a silver mine, an old race track etc.; he also built a ski lift. Because of difficulties with the board
he was forced to resign in December, but was given three months additional pay.
In late November Sperl took over the management of the Hotel Lafayette in Rockford, Illinois , where he was able to increase the business in 1947 and joined the Boss Hotels company of Des Moines , Iowa. A second daughter was born, and he finished a textbook on "Military Intelligence Interrogation Methods, Techniques and Procedures" which was "accepted for confidential distribution." In 1948 he was called back to active duty in the Pentagon for a course in strategic intelligence and was also appointed Officer in Charge of Intelligence survey by 5th Army for Northern Illinois. He served for 4½ years in the Strategic Officers Reserve Corps. In 1949 Ferdinand's father visited his son and his family in the US, and Ferdinand made a first investment in the Boss Hotels. In 1950 he took a leave of absence to spend three months in Europe. He says that he made "false starts" in hotels in Bloomington , Illinois , and Racine, Wisconsin, until he had a "big break" and was able to lease the Hotel Pere Marquette in Peoria in 1951. Though he had to liquidate all his assets, he made a number of changes at the hotel, reduced the payroll and made a profit despite unionization by 11 different locals. In 1952 he began "in earnest" to collect cookbooks and menus. In 1953 he was elected to the Board of Directors of the Illinois Hotel Association. In the following years he became involved in other hotels in the area, e.g. in Decatur and Rockford , again and again expanded and modernized the Pere Marquette and took various trips in the States, including a car trip to Alaska with two other families , and to Europe, on to Hawaii , the Philippines and Hong Kong, to Puerto Rico, and Mexico. He had two daughters with his first wife, and another one with his second wife. From 1967 to 1970 he was the executive vice president of the Boss Hotel Chain in Des Moines. Back in Peoria he became President of the Peoria Hotel Company and managed the Pere Marquette again until retiring in 1978. Then he joined the Shearson Lehman Brokerage firm as vice president until retiring for the second time in 1987.
Fred Novotny, a Vienna born hotel and restaurant man, worked with Ferdinand Sperl from 1956 to 1970 as his manager and later his partner. He described Sperl as a very interesting, hard-working man who had worked in many great hotels around the world. He was the premier hotel man in Peoria for three decades. He led the Hotel Pere Marquette, added a 1000 seat ballroom and remodeled the entire hotel. Many well-known guests lodged in his special suites such as President Eisenhower, President Nixon, Henry Kissinger and President Reagan. He also built the new Voyager Inn,
Peoria's first motor hotel (today's Holiday Inn City Center).
Hotel Pere Marquette today
One of Sperl' s great achievements was his creation of the QM Club (from Latin Quando manducamus = when we eat). This club offered about 4 large banquets per year which became well known and were attended by many people from Chicago and other cities as well as by hotel managers from far away who came to experience these events. Sperl's widow still has many of the special recipes served at the banquets; they show how meticulously Sperl arranged everything. Sperl and Novotny would over time change the "landscape of eating" in Peoria where only chicken, catfish, shrimp and steak had been available.
They brought chefs from Europe to Peoria and started cooking 'real menus.' At that time, Peoria had about 50 restaurants, 5 of which were in private hands; today there are 500, but only 3 are in private hands, the others are all part of large chains. Sperl gave 100% of his energy to his work; he lived in the hotel, and so would very often call Novotny at 9 on a Sunday morning, asking him to come over for a little bit, but then the two would end up working most of Sunday. He was involved in all the details of his various building projects at the Pere Marquette and the Voyager Inn, planning all the details with the architects. Everything had to be "100% or better." He was very strict in what he expected from his staff. For many it was at first difficult to understand why a fork had to be on the left or the right or why they had to come to work with polished shoes. Yet they all learned very much from him; he was a good teacher. And it was good to work with him when you took your work seriously. He was a hotel keeper and owner in the best old tradition: he was most hospitable, loved to talk to customers, he knew what customers wanted and what they should get. He always took their concerns and complaints seriously and could not understand why some hotel managers did not want to talk to customers when they had complaints. Sperl and Novotny played a lot of squash to stay fit for their hard work. When they both retired, they became very close friends. As a business leader in Peoria for many years Ferdinand Sperl was highly respected in the Peoria community as well as by his guests.
- Marianne Burkhard, 2009