Josh Shaffer

Duke custodian wins university’s top medal

Every morning at 5, Oscar Dantzler flicks on the lights at Duke Chapel, checking for stray blades of grass on the carpet, a brochure dropped between the pews or a spider web growing on the statue of Martin Luther.

He makes sure the wooden chairs get lined up straighter than soldiers, that nobody spilled a sip of water on the stone floor and the sanctuary looks neater than his own bedroom.

Then before he collects his dust mop, Dantzler descends to the crypt to perform one of his most hallowed chores as chapel custodian: He says good morning to Terry Sanford, the former senator, governor and Duke University president who resides below.

“We were tremendous friends,” explained Dantzler, 65.

For 18 years – technically 19, but Dantzler doesn’t count the year the chapel was closed for restoration work – this self-described country boy has doted on every stone in Duke’s iconic cathedral. He knows them like he laid them himself, and any visitor, whether President Jimmy Carter, Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison or a wedding guest in a wheelchair, gets an earful of this fondness.

Dantzler can charm nervous parents dropping their wide-eyed freshmen, reassure a medical student overwhelmed by exams and answer any question tossed out by a tourist walking through Durham’s sixth-tallest building. Short of Coach Mike Krzyzewski – who isn’t nearly as available – Dantzler might be the biggest celebrity on campus.

So on Thursday afternoon, Duke will hand the custodian its highest honor for distinguished service: the University Medal, a prize previously won by a physicist, a state House speaker and an Olympic coach. When he heard the news, Dantzler wondered which suit to wear before learning he would be dressed in an academic gown.

“This has got to be the first time a housekeeper ever got this medal,” he said, motioning to the door. “But I can go out to that bus stop and everybody out there knows my first name. That’s the ultimate honor.”

Born in the Florida panhandle, Dantzler grew up with a houseful of siblings in their tiny town of Ponce de Leon, raised largely by his mother Pauline Washington while his father was often away doing railroad work. His family was the first to have a television, and his neighbors were the first with a set of encyclopedias. Everyone shared. But even as a straight-A student, Dantzler didn’t go to college. “There weren’t no student loans,” he explained.

He served in the Air Force, bounced through jobs in New York, then, after a visit to a friend’s house in Shelby, moved south on the strength of its barbecue. Divorced now with a grown child, he boasts that he moved easily out of construction and into his work at Duke. His first administrator there, Mary Parkerson, instilled in him an obsession for straight chair rows.

And as he swept the stairs clean, he absorbed details from the architecture around him – the 77 stained-glass windows, the pulpit made from Indiana limestone – and passed them on to the hordes who flowed inside.

When I visited, Dantzler got button-holed by Rufus and Pamela Davis, visitors from Delaware, and he explained how Washington Duke started the family fortune in tobacco, how Julian Abele, a black architect in Philadelphia, designed the chapel and how it’s best not to visit on a Saturday because that’s when the chapel typically hosts three weddings.

Dantzler told me how he once escorted Mary Duke Semans down the center aisle on his arm, how Doris Duke is the only member of the family not buried in North Carolina and how he always turns on the lights in the morning in case any of the departed Duke spirits might want to play one of the chapel’s four organs. He casually began one sentence with, “Like I was telling President Brodhead ...”

“It’s his house,” said the Rev. Luke Powery, dean of Duke Chapel. “He’s kind of a residential oral historian. We were closed last year for restoration, and it was a year without Oscar. I can’t tell you how many people said, ‘I hope Oscar is going to be back.’ ”

It takes extra brushing to get grass blades out of chapel carpet. It takes vigilance against pigeons, wrens and spiders to keep the statues clean. And as Dantzler tells the teenage students who arrive at Duke, success just takes finding something you want to do eight hours a day, then doing it as well as you can.

A philosopher king

Oscar Dantzler appeared in the 2009 documentary “The Philosopher Kings” about custodial workers at major universities. Film crews followed him for several months. “It gets tiresome being a celebrity,” he joked. The full movie is available on YouTube.

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