During one of her first days on the job 15 years ago, front-office Senior Receptionist Brenda Perez received a call from someone wanting to know how much rain Tampa International Airport received from a passing thunderstorm.
“Am I supposed to know this?” Brenda thought. She called the team in the AOC, who told her about the National Weather Service data collection device at the end of one of the runways.
She learned how to get the rainfall number and never got another call about it again. But she soon found that being the receptionist for the airport often means having all the answers.
Brenda knows which airlines fly to which cities, and she has numbers people can call to book those flights. She sympathizes with grieving family members trying to get flights to funerals. She chats with Aviation Authority job candidates, calming their nerves before their interviews. She tells people how to renew their passports, where to rent cars, how much cab fares might cost from one point to another.
Perhaps the most common – and time-consuming – call Brenda gets is from a driver who can’t find his or her way to the airport. Brenda will spend several minutes helping navigate someone to the airport after a wrong turn, and it happens to be something she’s very good at doing.
“I’ve lived in Tampa for so long,” she said, “I know all the streets and turns.”
Brenda was born in Key West, where her relatives owned Perez Brothers Bakery from the 1930s to the 1960s, one of few businesses in the Keys at the time. When Brenda was a baby, her parents moved to Tampa, where both sets of grandparents rolled cigars in Ybor City.
Brenda’s mother was a homemaker and her father installed flooring and carpet for Sears, Roebuck & Co. for 33 years. He had grown up in Tampa and was the type of guy who loved helping people and neighbors, whether it was gathering friends to help put a new roof on someone’s house or lending money to someone in need, Brenda recalled.
Brenda attended West Tampa Junior High and Hillsborough High School, and was sometimes recognized by her father’s old teachers, who later taught her and her little sister as well. Her family lived in a little house on Ivy Street, which was right in the path of airplanes landing at the old Tampa International Airport terminal.
“We used to look up and see the planes,” Brenda said. “We’d have to stop the conversation, they were so loud.”
When Brenda graduated from high school, she married and had two children – a daughter who is now 41 and a son, now 37 – and did some receptionist work. She eventually got a job with the Hillsborough County School Board, where she worked for eight years, but around the time her marriage was ending and her children were grown, she decided she wanted to do something more fulfilling. She took a job as a home caregiver for an elderly stroke patient, with whom she enjoyed chatting and watching Florida State University football games.
After he died, Brenda found herself looking for work again and her sister suggested she look into another receptionist job listed with the county. She applied and was surprised when she was called to interview at the airport.
“The job just said ‘receptionist,’” Brenda said. “I didn’t know what I’d be doing at an airport.”
But Brenda was hired and soon found that the job combined two things she was good at: juggling front-office receptionist duties and talking to all types of people.
“Of all my jobs, I felt like this one was like I was in a dream,” she said. “You can’t really train someone to answer the kinds of questions you get here on a daily basis. It comes from learning over time and a desire to help people.”
Brenda lives a fairly quiet and humble life when she’s not working, often visiting her mother at her old home on Ivy Street and spending time with her partner of 17 years, Ron. She enjoys spending time her three grandchildren, often attending her 15-year-old grandson Trevor’s baseball games and doting on her two 8-year-old granddaughters, Brianna and Gina.
Brenda and Ron did have a brush with celebrity around the same time she began working at TPA; if you’re ever in the front office, ask her about the time the couple went backstage at an Earth, Wind & Fire concert and met singer Philip Bailey, bassist Verdine White and drummer Ralph Johnson.
Much like her father, Brenda gets the most enjoyment out of lending a hand and making life easier for people, and she plans to stay in her role at TPA as long as possible. Whenever she does get old enough to retire, she said, she hopes to stay on as a volunteer ambassador or with Travelers Aid.