By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Dec. 22 — When John Shaffer graduated from Virginia Tech in 1974, he never thought he would go back to the place of his part-time summer job from his teenage years.
“I wanted to go out in the world and do bigger things,” he remembers.
Yet Shaffer’s decision to return home would inevitably lead to world-wide travel, influence in the tourism industry well beyond Page County and Virginia, a steady flow of high-profile visitors, interactions with national and international media, and even a special moment with Tony Bennett.
Now, 55 years after he started working part-time in the parking lot, Shaffer is stepping down at the end of the year to ease into retirement. He will continue to represent the Luray Caverns Corporation in several national associations, as well as deal with government affairs in Richmond and Washington, but his days of full-time employment at this worldwide attraction have come to an end.
“My work now won’t amount to many days,” Shaffer said. “A week here and there.”
On Jan. 1, his role as director of marketing and public relations will fall to his assistant, Bill Huffman, who has been with Luray Caverns since 2003 and began working directly under Shaffer in 2008.
“I can honestly say John is a great boss, mentor and friend,” Huffman said. “He is a great industry leader whose knowledge and council I rely on. He is very supportive and has a clear vision of the tourism business. His generous spirit and helpful nature makes him a pleasure to work for. We enjoy what we do and have fun and laugh along the way. I have been honored to learn from the best and I wish John a long and happy retirement.”
Shaffer started in the parking lot in 1966. The caverns used to park cars for guests and would often attach cardboard signs to the bumpers of tour buses and other vehicles while they enjoyed their tour underneath the asphalt.
“My first day…I remember lying on the parking lot beneath a double-decker Greyhound bus…listening to a baseball game on a transistor radio, trying to affix a wire to a piece of cardboard,” Shaffer recalled.
The “Visit Luray Caverns” signs became so popular among bumper stickers at one point, that a Huntley-Brinkley Report in the 1960s stated that people “don’t know whether to vote for Goldwater, Johnson or Luray Caverns,” according to a recollection related to Shaffer by the late caverns’ owner H.T.N. “Ted” Graves.
Shaffer worked his way up from the parking lot to tour guide, and then to the ticket booth before helping Leland Sprinkle as he continued to build and tweak the Great Stalactite Organ, which was first dedicated in 1954 as the “largest musical instrument in the world,” according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
“He continued on, always perfecting it, into his 70s,” Shaffer said of Sprinkle, who died in 1990. “That was one of the things I was most involved with…there was so much media around it…Mr. Rogers even came and filmed a show with it.”
Shaffer’s ambition continued to lead to new responsibilities as he entered the sales office and then became group tour coordinator.
“We get about 1,500 buses a year,” he said of Luray Caverns. “Some of those groups have 400 to 600 people to greet and meet…it takes some coordination.”
One of those tour groups got a thrill when Tony Bennett, who was visiting the caverns at the same time, offered up a free performance in the Grand Ballroom. Sometimes special accommodations are needed, according to Shaffer, when a guest brings their own Secret Service agents, like Michelle Obama did during her husband’s presidency. Being the marketing director of an international attraction can offer some opportunities for a brush with fame, and Shaffer can remember greeting the president of Poland, Leonard Nimoy (a.k.a. “Mr. Spock”) and Susan Sarandon during the making of “The Other Side of Midnight” filmed partly in Page County.
There are few duties at Luray Caverns that Shaffer has not undertaken at one point during his career. In the early days, he even spent some time managing the local airport, which the caverns owned before turning it over to an airport authority managed by the county and the Town of Luray.
“Jim Logan needed some time off,” Shaffer said of the former airport manager. “One of my duties was to give him a day off.”
Shaffer gives credit to several mentors along the way, including Bob Harnsberger, Jerry Cavedo and Holt Maloney, who he “learned a lot from” about marketing Luray Caverns.
“These were people that were known throughout the nation and had received prestigious awards,” Shaffer said. “It just shows the quality of people that ‘Ted’ Graves hired. I just hope I’ve done something to contribute to that success and I hope that success continues.”
Shaffer’s contributions to Luray Caverns have not gone overlooked. His retirement was recognized recently at the caverns’ annual holiday banquet for employees by current president John Graves.
“Luray Caverns is celebrating the achievements of John Shaffer upon his retirement, but realize his daily absence will be a huge void,” Graves said. “John is a giant in the tourism industry and he is so well-connected worldwide, which the Luray Caverns has benefited beyond our knowledge. His love for the Caverns, his drive to improve regional tourism and his marketing professionalism surpasses the efforts of most, including his Caverns marketing predecessors.
“John will be missed, but he will continue representing the Luray Caverns as a tourism emissary,” Graves continued in a statement to PVN. “His successor Bill Huffman, will continue moving the Caverns forward in which John has full confidence.”
As Shaffer begins to ease into retirement, he offers a few take-aways from lessons learned — elected officials “are not all villains,” the Shenandoah Valley is uniquely positioned for the tourism industry, Luray Caverns is truly a worldwide attraction, and travel is an activity that creates life-long memories.
“It took a long time for me to recognize the significance of Luray Caverns…but when you see the reactions of people from all over the world you begin to realize how amazing the caverns really are,” Shaffer said, noting a recent visit from the BBC to film a piece on the organ. “Sometimes it takes outsiders to help us realize the location we have here…we’re just so privileged to live here and have everything else within a four-hour drive.”
Although his B.A. in Business Management from Virginia Tech could have lead him to many places, Shaffer feels everything worked out just as it should have.
“I can’t think of any other industry as profound as tourism,” he said. “When I see a family taking a photo in front of our logo I think…those people will remember this day the rest of their lives. Everyone remembers the first time they went to the Smithsonian or Jamestown, but they don’t remember the first time they bought insurance.”
As he shuffles through decades of memorabilia stashed around his office, Shaffer notes he’s given a number of things to the caverns’ archives. The stacks of photos, books, magazines and boxes indicate the process is not over.
While Shaffer will remain involved with the caverns, he also pledges to remain involved in the community. Over the years he has served on the Luray Planning Commission, chairman of the Tourism Committee and a member of the board of directors for the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce, and a longtime member of the Luray Rotary Club.
“I think everyone should do everything they can for their community, whether it’s New York or Luray,” he said. “In a small town, you know everyone and you feel obligated to do your part.”
This modest man has certainly done his share to leave his mark on Luray Caverns, travel associations, civic organizations, local government, and millions of visitors to Page County. Instead of going out and seeing the world, he spent more than five decades helping bring the world here to see what the Page Valley has to offer.
“I never thought I would end up here,” Shaffer said of his mindset as a young, college graduate, “but I would not have it any other way.”