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WCU's Jan O'Brien

Looking for 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.

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Sundays | My Uncle Ken


My Uncle Ken, holding our daughter, Julia, in July 2011.


There’s no small irony about what happened to my uncle, who spent his life as an automobile insurance claims adjuster.

When I told people that my Uncle Ken had been seriously injured in a car accident, invariably there would come a time when someone would ask how old he was. “Eighty-one,” I’d respond. “But that’s not entirely accurate.”

Ken was 81, but he was one of the most vibrant octogenarians I’d ever known. Scratch that. He was the most. He went to work every day. He shoveled snow. He took his dog all across Monmouth County–on schedule, even: Saturday mornings were bank mornings; the tellers eventually began stocking treats for Ken’s dog instead of lollipops. He made the world’s best stuffing on Thanksgiving.

Physically, he was the human being equivalent of a ’75 Mercury Marquis: big. Strong. Able to sustain the grave injuries delivered in the near head-on collision less than a mile from his home and still have the wherewithal to call my aunt and ask that she come quickly.

But I am speaking all of this in the past tense. Ken’s heart ultimately wore out last week, and he passed away.

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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.

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