Tag: cackalack

WCU's Jan O'Brien

Looking for Jan O’Brien


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

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

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.

Fall Meditation


Here comes the cold, crisp fall:
Bare feet retreat to woollen socks,
and darkness falls on younger clocks
as August sees her summer leaves
awake in orange glow.

It seems every end of summer begins a season of anticipation–four, blissful months of anticipation. September starts the school year new; October is a house full of goblins counting down to one big haunting; November, the turkey season beckons, and then, December’s darkness bookends the days towards solstice, and Advent leans into Christmas.

But summer! Oh how the summer burns down into embers, and how the first cold mornings awaken something inside from a deep, forgotten slumber. Fall is the best time for good beer. Bring the spice. Soon it will be okay to turn the oven on and bake–it won’t warm the house too much like it does in July. I cannot wait for a day cool enough for chopping wood.

I cannot wait for football–not that the sport itself means much to me–but the games themselves, the communities of people together, the time for wearing college sweatshirts again.

June Meditation



It begins with an early wake-up call, a bowl of cereal, and the morning light in my kitchen washing softly across the pages of the book I’m reading.

It’s quiet and cool in the house, cool outside, the chairs on the deck wet with dew. The feel of a simple pair of GM keys in my hands. Driving the older car, the one I’ve tried to convince Kel to replace, the one with stickers on the back. Nothing high technology. Insert key. Turn. Hear the engine crank to life. Windows down to feel the cool air better. The takeoff down the highway; no body’s out yet but the yardsalers. It’s early. The transmission holds onto each gear forever before slipping into the next, the motor stretching a little bit as it awakens.

The rain has been good this year. The corn stands are tall and thick and green. You could hide an entire school of boys in one field and never even know they were there. The sun is pouring across the ridge now, spilling all over a barn. There’s an old farm truck in front of me, its motor burning rich. I can smell the gasoline through my open window, mixing with the dense air. They turned off the analog yesterday, but everything about this morning is frozen in time.

This is the kind of car that’s old enough, and this is the kind of place that’s small enough that I can leave the car with the keys in the ignition. Simple.

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