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.