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Published: Tuesday, 9/4/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Hotel owner cites thrill of special guest

President Obama stayed at Toledo Hilton

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Toledo Hilton owner Grace Chojnowski-Kellogg, shown in the hotel lobby, says having President Obama stay at her hotel is a dream come true. The Polish immigrant said she will now call the suite in which Mr. Obama stayed the 'Obama Presidential Suite.' Toledo Hilton owner Grace Chojnowski-Kellogg, shown in the hotel lobby, says having President Obama stay at her hotel is a dream come true. The Polish immigrant said she will now call the suite in which Mr. Obama stayed the 'Obama Presidential Suite.'
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Everything you ever need to know about Grace Chojnowski-Kellogg can be summed up in the fact that on Saturday night, one day before President Obama arrived at her Toledo Hilton hotel, she was down in the hotel's basement, washing, starching, and ironing the uniforms for the housekeeping staff.

"It's hard to believe that she's the owner of the Hilton, but there she was down there washing and pressing 40 uniforms to make sure they look good for the President," said Derek Chojnowski, 43, the owner's son and the hotel's general manager.

But for Mrs. Chojnowski-Kellogg, a Polish immigrant who has owned and sold 15 hotels and motels since 1975, having the President choose her hotel is the penultimate chapter of her success story. She has owned the Toledo Hilton on Glendale Avenue in South Toledo since 2007. It is located near the University of Toledo Medical Center, the former Medical College of Ohio.

"Here when you own this and the President pays attention to you, I think that's double more emotion because we never dreamed this," said Mrs. Chojnowski-Kellogg, 62, who still speaks in broken English.

It likely will remain a state secret, but it is said that she was so busy making sure everything was shipshape at her hotel, that in her zealousness to see that everyone had clean, pressed clothes she may also have unknowingly cleaned clothes belonging to a certain high-ranking Washington official who works in an oval office.

What's certain is that when she met Mr. Obama on Sunday night at Toledo Express Airport, she shook his hand and then told him she was ready to die, having just experienced the greatest moment of her life.

Taken aback, Mr. Obama told her not to do anything so drastic, then kissed her on each cheek.

Mr. Chojnowski said he plans to have T-shirts made that said "Obama Kissed My Mama" to commemorate the occasion. Mrs. Chojnowski-Kellogg promised to do her son one better -- renaming the hotel's presidential suite the "Obama Presidential Suite."

For the President, a night at the Toledo Hilton was just one in an untold number of campaign stops as he moves toward the Nov. 6 election.

But for "Amazing Grace," as Mrs. Chojnowski-Kellogg is known in the Hilton hotel family, Sunday night's stay by Mr. Obama represented far more than most can imagine.

Her story literally is the American dream, coming from a foreign country at a young age with no money and no grasp of the language, and working hard every day to become a successful business owner.

"I never think about it that I would own a hotel where the President would stay. That's a dream come true," said Mrs. Chojnowski-Kellogg, who lives in San Antonio but spends some of her time in Toledo.

Arriving in the United States from Elk, Poland, in 1967 at age 17, she and her ex-husband Miren Chojnowski lived in Chicago managing nightclubs until 1975 when they left the safety of the Polish community there to buy and run a 34-room hotel and restaurant in West Texas. Neither could speak English, and they were forced to rely on their son, Derek, who was just 8, to help them run the hotel.

In the 1980s the Chojnowskis divorced and mother and son struck out on their own and over the last 20 years they have participated in the buying and selling of hotel properties. Along the way, Derek learning everything about managing hotels, while Mrs. Chojnowski-Kellogg became the transaction negotiator and the charming public face of their company, Amazing Grace Hotels LLC.

Since they have owned the Hilton, the hotel consistently has been ranked in the top 10 percent of all Hilton hotels, franchised or company-owned.

Mr. Chojnowski credits the hotel's lofty ranking to its 150-member staff, most of whom have worked tirelessly since Aug. 26 to get the Hilton ready for the President's visit. The hotel has hosted dignitaries before, most recently presidential candidates John McCain and Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Despite his status as leader of the free world, Mr. Obama was a very humble guest, Mr. Chojnowski said. "He seems like he is on TV -- a real people's president," Mr. Chojnowski said.

The President and his staff and security occupied three floors of the six-story Hilton, but they didn't ask for any special favors or adjustments. A group of guests in town for a weekend wedding were allowed to remain in the hotel.

Mr. Obama, who worked out for an hour in the hotel's fitness room, did not even ask that the fitness room be closed off to hotel guests while he was there.

"He said not to close it; he didn't want to inconvenience anyone," Mr. Chojnowski said.

The President's staff turned the upper three floors into a "mobile" White House and security set up airport-like screening in the hotel lobby. Police and Secret Service blocked off all entrances to the hotel during the President's stay and Toledo police cruisers frequently patrolled the streets leading to the nearby UTMC.

A White House chef came to help supervise preparation of the President's meals -- including a Delmonico steak dinner Sunday night and an early morning breakfast Monday of eggs and other breakfast foods.

But no changes were requested for Mr. Obama's three-room presidential suite. Mr. Chojnowski said that, comparatively speaking, singer Carrie Underwood was more demanding on her visit to Toledo in 2010, requesting that the hotel be closed off to all but her entourage.

While Mr. Obama did not request any special treatment or additions to his room, Mr. Chojnowski decided on his own on Saturday to put a 47-inch TV in the room for Mr. Obama's viewing pleasure.

In a sense, it was a small unannounced thank-you gesture from the hotel's owners to the President for something Mr. Obama did three years ago that helped them greatly.

"His dedication to bring back the auto industry saved us," Mr. Chojnowski said. "We live and die by the auto industry. If it wasn't for Obama, we would have probably had to shut our doors," he added.

When the recession hit in 2007 eight months after Mrs. Chojnowski-Kellogg bought the hotel, occupancy at the 211-rooom Hilton dropped to 50 percent from 80 percent, mainly because of a drop in business from local auto industry-related firms who often stayed at the hotel or held seminars there, Mr. Chojnowski said.

"All those corporations that work with the auto industry, they use us," he said. The recession "had a pretty dramatic effect" but the bailout "was huge for us."

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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