Baheru Haile, an accomplished guy who moved to Minnesota from Ethiopia in 1978, likes to work.

Haile, the son of a subsistence farmer, first earned a GED through Minneapolis Public Schools. He studied with former Minnesota Twins star Tony Oliva, a Cuban immigrant.

Haile then worked up to two jobs as he earned degrees over six years in economics, international relations and a minor in accounting from the U in the 1980s.

Haile tried a desk job. But he likes connecting with people. He worked for a decade as a cabdriver. Then 25 years for a couple of Sheraton hotels, including the former Sheraton Midtown near the Midtown Exchange. He has worked every job, from concierge to night manager and accountant.

“Driving always was my favorite,” Haile said. “Customers would call ahead to see if I was working.”

“In August 2007, when I was working at the Sheraton in northeast Minneapolis, guests called after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge to see if I was OK. I had driven many of them downtown over that bridge. I was bringing guests back from the Metrodome when the bridge collapsed. But I avoided it that night. It was rush hour and backed up with traffic. I took city streets.”

Haile and the other employees lost their jobs at the Sheraton Midtown last March because of the pandemic.

Married and father of two children, Haile took unemployment compensation, helped his kids with online learning and volunteered at the Blaisdell YMCA and at the local office of World Vision, which assists refugees.

Even so, he says, “I got a little bored. I missed working.”

His middle school-aged kids also were tiring of a persistent dad at home, pushing them on school work.

The prospects of returning to the hospitality industry were not good last fall.

Thousands of Minnesota hotel and restaurant workers remain idled. Hundreds of restaurants have shuttered in the Twin Cities.

And hotel occupancy in the metro area fell from about 75% a year ago to as low as 15% in January, according to the Minnesota tourism agency.

Haile, who could still be on unemployment plus $300 a week, responded in December to an ad in the Star Tribune for First Transit, the private bus and shuttle operator. Starting pay: $17.50 an hour.

It required six weeks of in-class and behind-the-wheel training for him to earn a commercial driver’s license.

He’s driving a commuter van in the west suburbs with designs on eventually driving the intercampus bus at the U.

“I’m enjoying it,” he said. “The customers call and dispatch sends me. It costs $3 a ride. I’ve had to learn new routes. It’s a challenge. But I’ve got a GPS. And I enjoy working and the customers.”

This initiative doesn’t surprise Haile’s former general manager at Sheraton Midtown.

“Baheru is great,” said Matt Truskolaski, who now works for Graves Hospitality. “Great work ethic. Great guy. Sincere. He had more positive comment cards from customers than anyone.”

Haile also has never shied from a challenge. Starting young, he left home with his father’s blessing and lived in another town that had a high school. He worked to pay rent and school fees.

In the 1970s amid a famine, Ethiopia’s leader was overthrown and killed by a military regime. A student protester, Haile was beaten and jailed by the army.

When he got a draft notice, he didn’t want to be part of an army that tortured citizens.

So Haile and a buddy walked hundreds of miles to Kenya, often at night to avoid soldiers.

They sometimes helped farmers in exchange for food.

They were captured by border guards and spent three months in prison. Starving in 100-degree heat, they were released and, eventually, sneaked across the border to Kenya.

Thanks to the kindness of strangers, Haile ended up living and working at a Methodist guesthouse in Nairobi. It was there that he met Rev. Norman Bakken, a Lutheran theologian from the Twin Cities.

A year later, Bakken and Haile petitioned the late Sen. Muriel Humphrey for help with immigration. It took awhile, but the young immigrant made it to the Twin Cities. He lived for months with his Minnesota “family.”

“Other barriers of culture, the harsh winters and the difficulties of the English language seemed unforgiving,” Haile wrote in a memoir.

Haile figured Minnesota out, studied, worked hard and lived frugally. He is enriched by experiences and friends.

Haile’s hotel employment meant some travel discounts. He has traveled to Europe, China and returned to Ethiopia several times. He met his wife, Ayalnesh Aleneeh, on a trip to Ethiopia.

Enjoying coffee last week at Mapps in the Midtown Global Market, a block from the former Sheraton Midtown, Haile greeted friends, welcomed spring and expressed appreciation for his American opportunity.

The conversation reminded me of my blessed life and what I take for granted.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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