Welcoming Smiles: Visitor Center duo helps thousands of travelers

Welcoming Smiles

By Colin Anderson | Article Provided by Coeur d’Alene Living Local

While some people like to plan out their vacations all in advance, others just kind of go with the flow. You can do a bit of research online into places to stay and eat and fun things to do in a new area, but often the best information comes from speaking with someone local. Many thousands of visitors swing through Coeur d’Alene each year, and whether it’s for a few hours or a few weeks, a lot head to the Visitors Center for information on what to do in and around Coeur d’Alene. Here you will find pamphlets, papers, maps and magazines with all the information you’ll need for your visit. You’ll also find something even more valuable—friendly faces with a lifetime of local knowledge.

While the Coeur d’Alene Visitors Center has changed locations and grown as the amount of visitors continues to swell, one constant has always been smiling helpful faces and two women in particular. Madie Pray and Herta Long have both called Coeur d’Alene home for a great deal of their lives. Both love the area so much they’ve made it their mission to help others find the beauty, serenity and splendor of the area just as enjoyable as they do. Madie and Herta are two of the longest standing volunteers at the Visitors Center: Herta for 21 years and Madie for 28 years. Between the two they have logged more than 7,600 volunteer hours directing visitors to the places and experiences that will help make their trip a memorable one.

Madie moved to Boise from a small town in Illinois to follow her husband’s career path in the lumber industry. In 1978, that path lead them to Coeur d’Alene. Always one to enjoy the outdoors, Madie quickly acclimated to North Idaho and the small-town living.

“It was so much smaller then,” she recalled. “I remember when they put a stoplight in at Fourth and Best, and that would slow you down trying to get to downtown.”

Not ready to fully retire, Madie took up a job at the Visitors Center and was a front desk coordinator for the first four years. In her 90 years she maintains it was the best job that she ever had. Madie had moved to Coeur d’Alene just a few years after Expo ’74 in Spokane, a time when the area first started to become exposed to a larger audience outside the region. By the early ‘90s, the influx of new residents from Southern California was on and Madie was fielding more and more questions at the center about school districts and neighborhoods. A large part of her job at the time was mailing relocation packets out.

“We did a lot in those years, she said. “One month I can remember mailing out at least 800 of those packets.”

Over her nearly three decades at the Visitors Center, Madie has encountered visitors from France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and just about everywhere else you could think of. Finding out what each visitor’s interests were was the first step in pointing them in the right direction, whether that might be skiing, shopping, camping or watersports. Each group is something new, and it brings Madie great pride to be helpful.

“Just being a helpful influence on someone who wanted to be here, that was really great,” said Madie.

She could only remember a few rude people as most are excited to discover Coeur d’Alene. She laughed at remembering a phone call from a secretary whose boss had asked her to inquire about where to buy a huckleberry tree for his garden in Denver and a little girl who took notice of Madie’s small stature and after 10 minutes of staring finally asked, ‘Are you a grown up?’”

Though recent medical conditions have forced her to give up her volunteer time, the memories she’s made and the lives she’s touched are nearly immeasurable.

While a bit behind Madie in years of service, Herta has called Coeur d’Alene home for even longer. A native of Salzburg, Austria, Herta and her family packed up their belongings and headed West from Long Island,  eventually landing in North Idaho in 1957. Herta wrote stories and snapped photos as a freelance journalist in the area and she, too, enjoyed the adventure and outdoor recreation the area provides.

“In every person there is a sense of adventure. I just have to find out what that is,” said Herta.

Today you’ll find her working her weekly Thursday shift at the Visitors Center in downtown. Like Madie, she’s seen tremendous change in the six decades she’s lived here.

“I talk with a lot of people from big cities—Seattle, Denver, California. They all fall in love with how calm and quiet everything is here,” she said.

Herta says most of the initial interest is in the lake, but she also fields a lot of questions from people who are traveling the country in an RV and are looking for a place to stay for a month or two. When visitors from Europe come in they are surprised to hear her Austrian accent and that she can speak German with them (current front desk coordinator Joan is also fluent in French), and she’s even met visitors with ties to the small villages surround her birthplace.

For Herta, the feeling of helping guide someone to an adventure or fun experience is one that gives her great joy, and the proof is often in the response of those she’s helped.

“I’ve had people give me a box of oranges, ice cream, emails from London and Canada thanking me. One couple came in a year after visiting to let me know they enjoyed their time so much they bought a home here,” she said.

Despite more than six decades of life in Coeur d’Alene, Herta still reads each of the magazines that comes into the Visitors Center and says she always finds something she didn’t know about. One not uncommon thought Herta sees in some visitors is the belief that Idaho is still incredibly cheap.

“A woman came in a few years back and wanted me to help find her a realtor because she was ready to buy a place on the lake and open a business and she had $10,000, which she thought was enough,” laughed Herta.

While just about everything has changed in Coeur d’Alene, Madie and Herta are still welcoming all visitors and eager to share their favorite spots with others so that they might get to enjoy the place they both love some much, if only for a few days.

“Just to know that you can be helpful and that people are so appreciative,” said Madie.

Added Herta, “I just love it! I know the area and I just love to meet people from everywhere.”