Washington - Cecil Exum figures he's made 130 omelets by now, but honestly, he's lost track. It's five hours into his nine-hour shift and he's just realized he hasn't had his morning coffee. The crowds keep coming, asking for omelets, fried eggs and waffles, so he keeps cooking.
Now three more omelets are sizzling on the stove. He pats each one with a rubber spatula and flips them, with a slight flick of his wrist: One, two, three.
"For mercy's sake!" says Sally McGinnis, 58, a longtime customer from Clover, South Carolina, who's lingering by the omelet station. "Those flips, my gosh, they were perfect."
Exum, who will turn 80 in two weeks, has been cooking for Marriott since before it was called Marriott. He was 19 when he left a sharecroppers' farm in North Carolina to take a job at Hot Shoppes, a root-beer stand run by the Marriott family. He bussed tables, served sodas and made banana splits.
The following year, the Marriotts opened their first hotel, Twin Bridges Motor Hotel in Arlington. Exum, a dishwasher, was among its first employees. He made about 75 cents an hour and took home $30 a week.
As Exum worked his way up from the kitchen to the front, and then to the corner omelet station at the Crystal Gateway Marriott, where he has been for 24 years, the business grew, too: From a chain of root-beer stands to the world's largest hotel chain, with $17 billion in annual revenue.
"Mr. Cecil is a living history of Marriott," Robert Tate, the hotel's director of human resources wrote in nominating Exum for a Marriott Award of Excellence earlier this year. "He has become a legend to our guests."
Exum, his managers say, is the company's longest-standing employee. That puts him in the company of one other guy: Bill Marriott Jr., the hotel giant's 85-year-old chairman, who also began working there full time in 1956 and retired a few years ago as chief executive.
"We are so proud that Cecil is part of the Marriott family," Marriott said. "He has been a shining example of 'putting people first.' And I can testify he makes wonderful omelets."
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Exum has stayed, he says, because he likes his work and has good benefits: a retirement plan, profit-sharing program and "all the vacation time I could want." Company lore has it that in his 61 years, he's never once called in sick.
In many ways, Exum represents another era of American employment, when workers remained in one job - with one company - for decades, and were celebrated for their loyalty with plentiful pensions and maybe a gold watch.
But over the past generation, much of that has diminished. Employers, in an ever-frantic race to cut costs, have slashed pensions and pushed out older workers through downsizing and buyouts.
"Since the 1990s and through our recent period of economic malaise, companies have been cutting, cutting, cutting," said Aldy Keene, head of the Loyalty Research Center, an Indianapolis-based consulting firm. "Their focus has been on holding on to the fewest workers. How can we get by? What's the minimum we can do?"
Decades ago, as Exum was entering the workforce, it was a different story. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, and especially after World War II, Americans - and corporations - sought a certain stability. Employees wanted reliable jobs, and employers wanted dependable workers.
"For people like my parents, who lived through those things, that had a dramatic impact on their desire for stability," said Keene, 63. "Not only in their jobs but in other parts of their lives."
And so it is for Exum, who was born as the decade-long Depression was ending, and just before the war began. Job security is important, he says, particularly in an industry known for its high turnover. The average American worker stays in a job for about four years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Food service workers, though, have the shortest tenures, remaining in one job for an average of 1.9 years.
Exum says he is taking steps, however small, to change that.
"Whenever someone new starts here, I tell them two things: One, sign up for the retirement plan," he said one morning as he refilled tubs of cheddar cheese. "And two, don't keep moving job to job."
At the omelet station, Exum is waiting on the next batch to cook through. To pass the time, he scribbles a shopping list on a napkin. He wipes the counters, then opens the refrigerator to count eggs.
"When it gets slow, I check everything to see what I need for tomorrow," he says. It's important to keep moving, he adds, "otherwise my mind would wander."
A few yards away, McGinnis is still there, gushing to other customers about the omelet she just ate. She turns to Exum.
"You think about retiring at all?" she asks.
"Sometimes I do," Exum says, sprinkling jalapeños over an omelet. "Sometimes I don't."
"Clearly you're not thinking about it all that hard," McGinnis says. "You're still here."
Toyed with leaving
There was a time, in the 1970s, when Exum toyed with leaving Marriott. The details are fuzzy now, he says, but "I was just getting tired of what I was doing. I wanted to make a change."
But, he quickly realised, he isn't a man who likes much change. He prefers familiarity and order.
He wakes to gospel music at 3:30 each morning in his four-bedroom house in Waldorf, Maryland, where he lives alone. He leaves for work at 4:15 a.m., driving his new Toyota Prius (which he bought after his 2001 Ford Ranger began giving him trouble) in the right-most lane the entire way. By 5 a.m., he's at the hotel, pulling a striped apron over his head.
There are other constants in his life, too. He doesn't drink or smoke. He goes to two church services each Sunday, at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., and afterward cooks himself the same breakfast: Hungry Jack pancakes, which he likes steaming hot; grits, which he prefers warm; and Jimmy Dean turkey sausage patties (no pork or beef), which he eats warm or cold.
In the summer, he goes fishing with his 73-year-old sister, Clara, whom he calls "baby girl." He takes a week off every July to drive to his family reunion, an elaborate affair that draws hundreds. And every winter, he puts in the same vacation request at work: two weeks off in December, and two weeks off in January to spend the holidays with his extended family.
He's been able to settle into his routine, he says, because Marriott hasn't pushed him out - and that feels like a luxury these days. The company doesn't have mandatory retirement requirements and Exum says he's never felt pressured to leave. (Marriott's board recently began requiring that all directors, with the exception of Marriott Jr., retire at 72.)
It's become difficult for older workers to remain employed, says Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
"Experienced workers are higher paid, and if you're trying to save money, you can save more, faster, by getting rid of older workers," he said. "Fewer people are making it to traditional retirement age with one longtime employer."
As a result, Exum has become something of a legend at the sprawling, 697-room convention hotel where he works.
"So many people have heard about him, and they are always stopping to say hello," said Mohammed Kamalzadh, 64, who fills in for Exum. "They'll say to me, 'Are you Mr. Cecil?'"
He usually says no, but at times he can't help himself: "I don't like to lie, but sometimes I say yes," Kamalzadh said. "People get so happy to meet someone who's worked here for so many years."
As Exum cleans up, Kamalzadh dumps plates of smoked salmon and capers into the trash. The two have been cooking together for 13 years, but they mostly work in silence. Sometimes they share stories about customers - Exum, for example, finds it puzzling when customers request egg whites, then load up on bacon - but they never talk about their lives.
"I love fishing," Kamalzadh says. Exum does too. But they've never swapped stories. "Lately he's quiet," Kamalzadh says, during a moment when Exum has gone into the kitchen. "He's got a lot of stories - he's been here since Eisenhower was president - but he's not one to talk about himself."
At the M Club, Marriott's members-only dining room with marble-topped tables, three women are comparing notes. The topic: Exum's omelets. One woman has been eating them for at least 10 years. Another discovered them yesterday, and has had two since.
"The texture of the eggs is perfect: fluffy, not runny," she says. "It's like, I don't even know how to explain it, but I never imagined an omelet could be so perfect."
"He's an artist, that's all I have to say," adds another. "An omelet artist. There's nobody better."
Not an omelet person
"To be honest with you, I'm not really an omelet person," Exum says after work one day.
His mother taught him to cook, he says, as soon as he was tall enough to reach the stovetop.
"There were six of us: Three girls and three boys," he said. "When we got old enough, we all knew how to cook. We took turns fixing dinner: Collard greens, potatoes, chicken, pork shoulder."
When his son, now 49, was growing up, Exum taught him, too. It was a matter of utilitarianism, Exum says, of not having to rely on others. "I told him you should always learn to cook so you don't go hungry," Exum said. "That's the main thing."
His son, a security guard for the Smithsonian Institution, and his daughter-in-law, who works for Safeway, live a half-hour drive away in Upper Marlboro. He sees them twice a month, he said. And his daughter-in-law calls to check on him three times a week, or more when the weather is bad.
Lately they've been asking what he wants to do for his 80th birthday next month. "They want to plan something big," Exum said. "But I told them I don't want no big celebration. All I want is to be alive, healthy and strong. I don't make plans for nothing."
Exum has been thinking about retirement a lot lately. Ever since his sister left her government job a few years ago, he's started to think maybe it wouldn't be so bad to have some time to himself, to work in his yard and travel to parts of the country he's never seen.
It worries him though, to give up the life he's known since 1956, when he left his work on a livestock farm to move to Washington for a job at Hot Shoppes.
Sometimes he runs into the other man who joined the company that year, the founder's son. Their circumstances are different, he says - Exum wouldn't say how much he makes (although a human resources director at the company said the starting rate for an omelet maker today is about $16 to $18 an hour); Bill Marriott, meanwhile, was paid $3.66 million last year and has an estimated net worth of $2.2 billion. Lately, though, it seems like the two of them are grappling with the same big questions, toying with retirement, but also frightened by what it could bring.
"My dad will never stop working," Marriott's daughter, Deborah Marriott Harrison, told The Washington Post in 2014. "He would probably curl up in the fetal position and die. This company has been so much a part of his life."
Exum can understand that. Many days, his job is what keeps him going. When his arthritic knee is bothering him, or when he's just feeling down, Exum gets dressed and heads to work.
"Pretty soon, I'm making eggs, I'm socializating and I realize my pain has gone away," he said. "As long as you're working, you're active and your body stays active. But when you're retired, your body slows down on you."
His doctor warned him, before his last checkup, that working on his feet could cause complications. But so far, he's healthy.
After work each day, he props his 6-foot-2-inch frame on a pillow and massages his legs. Sometimes he takes a nap.
"When I'm falling asleep, that's when I let my mind wander a little bit," he said. "What am I going to do in my yard? When am I going to go fishing? And then that big question: When am I going to retire?"