Looking for Jan O’Brien

WCU's Jan O'Brien



A journey to say goodbye to a campus legend–before it’s too late.

UPDATE, DECEMBER 5, 2016: Western Carolina University announced today that Jan O’Brien had passed away. It’s important to note this story is about the summer of 2014, when Jan’s passing was erroneously reported.

Jan will always be a cherished part of my college years, and I am deeply saddened to hear she’s passed away. I will always be grateful, however, of the chance I got to tell her how important she was to so many of us before it was too late.  –jdh


THIS STORY BEGINS SIXTEEN YEARS AGO, the fall of 1998, when I was a high school senior visiting my college sophomore girlfriend at Western Carolina. We were kids, so we were drawn like moths to the flame by the on-campus Chick-fil-a, where fried chicken sandwiches wrapped in foil bags sat under heat lamps, waiting for us to collect them and pay for them with a mysterious and seemingly inexhaustible supply of declining balance points.

We’d gathered our meals and headed for check-out, and that’s the first time I met Jan O’Brien, the infamous register attendant in the University Center food court. She was an older lady, short but strong stature, white, curly hair, and a vibrant smile, which she flashed warmly to me. “Hello, sweetheart!” she said.

“Hi, Jan!” Kelly said back to her.

I grinned. “What, no ‘sweetheart’ for me?”

She laughed, and then she called me sweetheart. We chatted, and then we checked out, and we ate, and the next year I came back to Western Carolina as a freshman. Jan was still there, and she called me sweetheart. She called me that for the next four years. Continue reading “Looking for Jan O’Brien”

Sundays | Thawing Out





I have been in a funk. I’m not sure if it’s seasonal blues, or if it’s just the weight of the world bearing down. There’s plenty of heartache and hurt in my family and friends circle at the moment, and instead of using that proximity as a caliper of measuring how frankly lucky and blessed we are, it’s mostly just dropped one wet blanket of disaffection after another on top of me. I’d gotten stuck.

Things kind of came to a head yesterday when Kel and I took the kids to try and come up with a Christmas card picture.

To begin with, we didn’t have the vision for the picture. We were starting off behind. We’ve both been busy as of late, and the ideas we’d tossed around for a Christmas card picture–because, you know, these things are supposed to be meaningful pictures, the kind you hang on your fridge for goodness sakes–well, those ideas weren’t working out. They were too complicated or required more planning than we had time for.

But we kind of had a hunch about shooting pictures downtown, so we packed up everybody in Christmas Best Clothes and trotted into town, wagon and reindeer stuffed animals in tow. I carefully parallel parked, and then we found ourselves in front of Statesville’s historic courthouse, greened up with fir wreaths and lights (which were off, you know, because it was daytime and all).

It kind of went downhill from there. Continue reading “Sundays | Thawing Out”

The Opening



Memorial Day weekend is the opening to summer that Labor Day closes.

(Author’s note: the following was originally published on May 27, 2013.)

Years ago, I wrote a meditation on the fall that contained some version of the line, “If Fall had an archway, this would be it.” And a similar line would work here, that Summer officially started this past weekend.

All around us, the community sprung into motion, as if the spring season had pent up some untapped reserve of kinetic force. My friends filled their Facebook and Instagram and Twitter feeds with reports and pictures of movement, point A to point B, fun all along the way, pictures of barbecues and lake outings and beaches and camping and Nascar races and parties. The pumps are running at all of the swimming pools, and thousands (or millions!) of us braved the temperatures, this spring more fitting in October than May, and splashed around in glory.

As for me, I left work Friday around lunch and picked up my golf clubs, inspired by a friend who was doing the same thing, and drove straight to the little county course near our house. I bought a pair of hot dogs, and a cold beer, and a bottle of water, and a bucket of range balls, and a round of nine holes. It had been about two years since I’d been out on a golf course. Better to ease into it. Continue reading “The Opening”