It’s 9 a.m., just another morning on the job for Duane Dangler.
He sits across from the entrance of the cafeteria at Landon Hall, his register on the desk in front of him. He’s here most mornings, always dressed the same: black Culinary Services polo and a green lanyard.
The friendliness of the hosts – Dangler’s official job title – at the cafeterias around campus varies broadly. Dangler may take the top spot for one reason in particular: he learns names.
“Good morning Taryn,” Dangler greets a student.
Everyone gets the same treatment. Most greet him back. The process is always the same – after he’s handed the student’s ID, there’s a brief pause to look, a swipe, and a greeting. He learns the name eventually. At this point in the semester, many regulars are greeted on sight. Dangler will turn 76 in a few months, but his memory is still sharp.
To many students, Dangler is the older guy who works at the cafeteria and says hello to them. But his autobiography is much more novel-worthy.
Dangler is a Spartan. Or at least he would have been, had he not left, twice. He dropped out during his first year to enlist in the Army during the Cuban missile crisis. He returned for two years, but transferred to Olivet College, where he graduated with a degree in Christian Education. He then immediately went on to earn his master’s degree at a seminary in Alabama.
God only knows whether his football scholarship offer from then-coach, now-legend Duffy Daugherty might have been enough to keep Dangler in East Lansing. But before he stepped foot on campus – the second time – he fractured his ankle in an accident. Following surgery, doctors told him to avoid anything “ballistic” – like running or jumping – for the rest of his life, for fear of tearing the repaired ligaments. He lost his mobility, and the scholarship with it.
Dangler has worked at General Motors, operated his own trucking company, and worked in logistics management for multiple companies. He also found the time to race motorcycles competitively for 13 years on the side.
Some years ago, Dangler was also awarded an honorary doctorate by a bishop in Wisconsin. It seems not to have gone to his head. The papers sit in a box in his house somewhere.
In 2003, Duane’s wife of 25 years was diagnosed with spinal cancer. Taking early retirement soon after, he served as her caretaker. They did a lot of travelling, visiting family around the country one last time. She passed away in 2008.
In 2012, a friend of his daughter called him, looking for help. She worked at the cafeteria, which was understaffed at the time. He took the job, and never left. When asked why he stays, he wastes no time answering.
“You guys,” he said.
“Most of the students in here are the age of some of my grandchildren,” Dangler said. “And, I get to know you guys, I read your names every time I swipe your card, and to me, you’ve become my adopted grandchildren. All of you. You kids are important. And I just always thought, ‘they need to know they’re important, and realize their self-worth, so they complete their education.’”
As of now, Dangler has no plans to leave his current position. The morning greetings will continue, for as long as he is able.