Above the Spanish Steps, commanding an incomparable panorama of eternal Rome, stands the opulent Hotel Hassler. The Wirth family, coproprietors of the Hassler since 1916, became sole proprietors in 1964, when the hotel approached 80 years of age and fame. Roberto E. Wirth, today’s president and general manager of Hassler Roma S.R.L., is the fifth-generation hotelier of the Swiss family Wirth. Outstanding in capacity and achievement, he has received several awards and honors, is a sportsman, and is a connoisseur of sculpture and painting. He was born profoundly deaf.
He tells a story of courage, determination and talent to rise above severe affliction. “When I was a little boy I always saw my father working in the hotel,” he said on his recent Tokyo visit. “Every day for me was difficult. My younger brother was already speaking other languages. I told my father: ‘I want to learn something. I want to run a hotel.’ He discouraged me, and said running a hotel required a lot of training, and I would have to talk to people. I said, ‘What could I do to learn?’ He told me to go out to the market every morning at 5 o’clock and learn the quality of fresh food. He knew I always woke up late, and thought I wouldn’t go. But I was determined to show him. I had to prove I could do something. I was 12.
“After that, I told my father, ‘I’ve learned enough.’ And he put me in the accountancy department, where I had to write figures. Then I told my father I wanted to go to hotel school. He sent me to Hotel School ‘Maggia’ in northern Italy. I was 16.”
At his schools earlier in Rome, Roberto said: “I was the same as all the other deaf children. In the hotel school I was different. All the others were hearing students. I felt left out, alone. But I kept going. I had to find some way, and I made friends through games. I was reading lips all the time. Lips move in different ways — it was so tiring; I needed a lot of energy. I stayed two years, and I did several summer jobs in hotels.”
Roberto’s father died, and his mother, Carmen, took over the running of the hotel. “She had never run a hotel before. She just rolled up her sleeves and said, ‘From now on we begin again. We can do it.’ That was in 1968, a very difficult time in Europe with the unions and student unrest. She gave me a choice of working at a job in London or going to Gallaudet University in Washington to study. I chose Gaullaudet.” From Gallaudet he enrolled in the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., and then at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. His working experience then included kitchen chores and dishwashing, cooking and waiting at table.
In San Francisco, Roberto obtained a diploma as engineer of refrigeration. He worked as a hotel assistant chief engineer and as a restaurant part-time cook. He moved to Honolulu, where he assumed food and beverage cost control for the six restaurants of the Hyatt Waikiki Regency Hotel.
During his stay in Hawaii, Roberto served as president of the Silent Aloha Association. This association publishes a monthly newsletter for the deaf, and is distributed throughout the U.S. On his own initiative he approached the mayor to urge getting deaf people off welfare dependence and into employment. The mayor appointed him teacher of American Sign Language to the heads of various hotels, to facilitate their hiring of the hearing-impaired. Roberto also attended the University of Hawaii to study business administration, and lectured at the governor’s conferences.
He returned to the Hotel Hassler, where he became general manager in 1982. He has accepted invitations for the hotel to take part in food festivals, and has a long-standing relationship with the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo. The Imperial consulted with him for the opening and managing of its Cicerone restaurant.
Never give up, Roberto says. He is humorous and personable, conversant with three languages, and with Italian sign language as well as American. He has made a name around the world for his accomplishments, and for his activity in many international associations for the deaf. As well as being a board member of particular groups in the States, he founded the Committee of Executive Deaf Managers, which meets during the Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf. One of his many awards came from the Laurent Clerc Cultural Fund of Gallaudet University for excellence in a field not related to deafness.
Roberto’s wife, Astrid, recently redecorated the four-room Hassler suite, caring for elegance, old-time atmosphere, comfort and modern technology all at once. The couple have 8-year-old twins.