Beloved campus fixture, perpetual smiling face, Jan O’Brien passes
Known for her smile for everyone coming through the cafeteria and her motto, “sharing is caring,” O’Brien was a positive fixture and influence for countless students, faculty, staff and visitors for more than 25 years. Known as “Ms. Jan,” she had a knack for remembering students’ names and had a bulletin board of their photos near her register. She retired as a WCU employee in 1997 but continued to work with Aramark, WCU’s food service provider, until May 2015.
Erroneous reports of her death went viral on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere in 2014, prompting alumnus James D. Hogan ’03 to write a blog article that also went viral, leading to a feature story in this magazine’s Winter 2015 edition. “You know, I don’t have any children of my own,” she told Hogan. “But actually, I have 6,000 children. All of these kids are my kids. I love them. They keep me alive. I’ll keep coming here and doing this job until I can’t get out of bed.”
News of her actual passing went viral on WCU (and other) social media platforms, as alumni and students shared condolences and fond memories. A native of Washington, D.C., O’Brien made Miami Beach her home for 35 years before coming to Western North Carolina and becoming a resident of Sylva in 1989.
Donations in her memory may be made to the Jan O’Brien Sharing is Caring Scholarship Fund, payable to the WCU Foundation. Checks should be sent to the WCU Development Office, 1 University Drive, Cullowhee, N.C. 28723, while online donations may be made at makeagift.wcu.edu by writing “In memory of Jan O’Brien” in the comments section.
To protect and serve: Saluting the career of ‘good cop’ Dave Bennett
When I arrived at Western Carolina University in August 1986, officer Dave Bennett had already been with the police department for more than 25 years. Dave began working for Western Carolina College in the 1950s on the college farm. He moved from that job to housekeeping. In the late 1960s, when civil unrest affected many college campuses, he became the university’s first African-American police officer. This was around 1968 under Chief Pritchard Smith.
One of Dave’s duties as a police officer at that time was to serve as driver for the university’s chancellor. He served each chancellor from Alexander Pow to H.F. “Cotton” Robinson, providing not only transportation for them to meetings on campus and in the community, but also for official trips to Raleigh and Chapel Hill and to airports in Asheville and Atlanta.
He was a friend and adviser to many students over the years. He was known by everyone on campus and was a trusted and respected employee of the police department and WCU.
Back before the traffic light was installed at the intersection of Centennial and Central drives, Dave was struck by a vehicle while carrying out his regular duties of directing traffic at class change. His injuries were not serious. But, in pushing for a traffic light at that intersection, I wouldn’t let anyone forget about that accident.
Dave retired from police service around age 70. I never was sure whether that was his correct age; he looked younger, but he could have been older.
He made sure to provide me with lots of good background information about the practices, people and culture of the university and probably kept me from making some serious mistakes early in my time at Western. Although he was 30 years older than me, he accepted me as his chief. More than that, he showed many times that he cared about me as a person and wanted me to succeed.
Dave’s entire life was wrapped up in the university, from the time he worked on the farm and even after his retirement. He was a Catamount through and through.
Dave passed away Aug. 7, 2016, at the age of 87. I will miss Dave, my brother and my friend. And, from the outpouring of responses to my Facebook post about his passing, I know that many others will, as well.
Gene McAbee served as chief of police at Western Carolina University for nearly 20 years until retiring in 2005.