Retired bank president Royce Heffelfinger spends his free time at the Twin Cities airport, helping travelers from around the world get where they need to go.
A few years ago, when Royce Heffelfinger was at the Twin Cities airport, a woman came up to him with a problem.
“I’m in super trouble,” the woman said, wiping away tears.
Heffelfinger was used to that. He had volunteered at the airport’s Travelers Assistance booth since he retired as president of Bremer Bank in Redwood Falls.
Even so, this woman’s problem was a new one for him.
“I told my husband I can’t fly, but he talked me into it,” said the woman, who was from Colorado Springs, Colorado. “We were going to his mother’s funeral in Boston, but I just can’t fly any further.”
So, the husband just left her at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport and flew on without her.
Heffelfinger and another volunteer called train and bus stations, and found a way for the woman to get back home to Colorado Springs.
Looking back on it, Heffelfinger shook his head. “Oh gosh, I don’t think I could do that, leave my wife behind like that,” he said.
Heffelfinger thought he was prepared for his retirement four years ago. He even wrote down retirement ideas on slips of paper and kept them in a cigar box for when the big day arrived.
It didn’t take him long to run through his ideas. Then one day, he saw a Star Tribune article about Travelers Assistance needing volunteers for the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport.
About 35 million travelers pass through the Twin Cities airport every year, and the airport has about 300 volunteers who help them out.
“Most of the volunteers are retired people. Lots of them are retired executives who used to run some pretty large companies, much larger than a small town bank,” said Heffelfinger. “Some of them have some pretty fantastic backgrounds.”
So he signed up. The Travelers Assistance program was originally started in the early 1980s by the United Way, and currently has 10 booths spread across the Twin Cities airport.
“We have to record each person or group we help. We make contact with about a million people a year,” he said. “Most of the people we help have issues traveling. They don’t travel much.”
He explained his helping-people technique: “You don’t sit in a booth; you stand and watch people. It’s easy to spot if they need help. Then you just walk right up to them. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they appreciate the help.”
One of the most common questions: “Where can I smoke?” (The Twin Cities airport is smoke free.)
Other common questions are, “Where is the nearest restaurant?” “Where can I get my luggage?” and “Where can I rent a car?”
Heffelfinger volunteers once or twice a month. “They want each volunteer to get in about 100 hours in a years’ time,” he said. “We work in four-hour shifts. Typically, I do the 4-8 p.m. shift, then I spend the night with my son in Arden Hills.”
During those four hours, Heffelfinger usually talks with between 100-200 travelers, although is record is 280 people.
“Sometimes you’ll be there and there’s no one around. It feels like the airport’s been abandoned,” Heffelfinger said. “Then six flights will all come in at the same time.”
The toughest part for Heffelfinger is when visitors want help, but don’t speak English.
“Some people have no credit card, no identification, speak no English - they just jump on a plane and end up in Minneapolis,” Heffelfinger said.
“We get visitors from all over - China, Korea, Mexico - who have never been in the Minneapolis airport before. When they come up to the booth, they’ll usually wave their hand in front of their face. I guess that’s the universal sign that they don’t speak English.”
The information booths have signs with 21 different languages posted on them.
When non-English speaking visitors want help, Heffelfinger shows them the sign and has them point out the language they speak.
Then Heffelfinger picks up the courtesy phone and contacts an on-call interpreter.
“It usually takes about five minutes, then the visitor is by gosh speaking to someone in their own language. They usually want to know something like how to get to St. Cloud.
“One volunteer had worked the 4-8 shift in baggage, and saw a Middle Eastern man wandering around.
“The next day, the volunteer cam in and the man was still there in baggage.
“The volunteer went over and asked if the man was all right. The man spoke very broken English, and gave the volunteer a card with a phone number on it.
“The volunteer called the number, and it was for a family in Fargo, North Dakota. The man’s family said, ‘My God! We’ve been waiting for him for three days!’
“The man had gotten off the plane early, and had been wandering around the Twin Cities airport, like that character in that Tom Hanks movie (The Terminal.)”
In hundreds of encounters with visitors, Heffelfinger has only encountered a few lost children.
“People are being really cautious. At this time of year, most of the older children are in school. Usually the kids I see are two or three years old, pulling their own luggage on wheels. They’re the cutest things.”
“The most emotional times are when troops come home. People in the airport start applauding; you get tears in your eyes.”
Heffelfinger said one odd benefit of volunteering is getting to meet the drug and bomb dogs who patrol the baggage section. “They’re supposed to sniff the baggage, but they typically find someone’s lunch.”
And what does Heffelfinger get for his monthly treks to the airport?
“There’s no pay for it,” he said. “We get free parking and a beverage, but basically our pay is the thank yous.”