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The Chapel's caretaker: a conversation with Oscar Dantzler

For nearly two decades, Oscar Dantzler has seen his role at Duke as not just the Chapel custodian, but also as a caretaker of the University and its students.

“Lots of people downgrade other people for what they do," Dantzler said. "Every night, I go and get in my bed, and I tell myself that Duke can’t run if they didn’t have us housekeepers.”

Dantzler has long worked to keep the Chapel clean and organized, but he considers his unofficial duties—advising students, befriending visitors and passing along wisdom—to be just as important.

"[My job is] just to make sure all of these young people that come to Duke keep their mind on what they’re supposed to do."

On a typical day, Dantzler wakes up at 4:30 a.m., arriving at Duke soon after to begin his work before the Chapel opens its doors at 8 a.m. He can often be found talking to strangers and old friends alike as he sweeps the Chapel’s front steps. He also dusts, sweeps, mops and arranges furniture for both the Main Sanctuary and the office space on the Chapel’s lower level.

Dantzler repeats a mantra, passed down from his mother, that emphasizes how he values his work: “If you can’t keep the house of God clean, you can’t keep your own house clean.”

Dantzler's mother served as an important influence in his life and a step on his journey to Duke, he noted. Raised in a small town on the Florida Panhandle, “it wasn’t much playtime,” he said, describing a strict upbringing filled with chores and work on the farm before school.

But his mother’s impact paid off, and Dantzler graduated high school with straight A's. Further education was not a financial possibility, so he moved to New York—but 20 years later, serendipity led him to Duke. On a trip to Shelby, North Carolina, he and a friend decided to stop in Durham for Bullock’s Barbecue, one of the city's oldest restaurants. Dantzler fell in love with the area and for the past 21 years has called Durham home.

He worked in construction as a laborer and a project superintendent before transitioning to Duke in 1997 in what he describes as a work of God.

"Y’all are like my Gatorade."

Having been at Duke for so long, one of the biggest changes Dantzler says he has seen has been in the administration—he has worked under two University Presidents, Nan Keohane and Richard Brodhead, as well as working privately for former President Terry Sanford. He praised each for their contributions to and love for the Duke community.

But the thing that Dantzler has most treasured in his tenure at Duke is building relationships with students, who he refers to as his “babies.”

“The custodian part of my job, after 18 years-–it’s simple,” Dantzler said. “It’s just to make sure all of these young people that come to Duke keep their mind on what they’re supposed to do.”

During a conversation with Dantzler, the scope of his wisdom quickly becomes apparent. His advice for students includes exhortations against unnecessary distractions, the importance of respect for one’s parents, warnings against pulling “all-nighters" and encouragement of community service.

An avid Facebook user, one of his proudest accomplishments is keeping in touch with many of his “babies,” whom he has mentored over his 18 years at Duke.

In 2009, Dantzler's role at Duke allowed him a turn in the spotlight—being featured in a documentary called The Philosopher Kings, which profiled the wisdom of custodial workers within institutions of higher learning. His involvement with film gave him the opportunity to attend Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

"I had never been under the bright lights like that," Dantzler recalled.

"If you can’t keep the house of God clean, you can’t keep your own house clean."

In his free time, Dantzler loves fishing at a favorite spot out in nearby Creedmoor, North Carolina, attending concerts at the Durham Performing Arts Center and visiting the American Tobacco District downtown, where Tyler’s Taproom is a favorite restaurant.

But it is not hard to tell that his heart is with the students and with the Chapel.

“Y’all are like my Gatorade,” he said as he paced the front row of the Chapel, pointing out areas where work will be done when the building closes for renovations next year.

“They would always say there were two people who loved this Chapel to death— that was me and Mary [Duke Biddle Trent Semans]. I wouldn’t ever tell Mary I liked it better than her,” Dantzler said with a chuckle. Semans, the great-granddaughter of Washington Duke—the University's namesake—was a lifelong philanthropist and Duke lover.

Though Dantzler's career at Duke has been long and his impact extensive, he does not plan to retire any time soon, he added.

“I’m 63, and I don’t feel a day over 25. Right now, up until my body tells me ‘that’s it,’ I ain’t planning to go,” he said.

Adam Beyer | Digital Content Director

Adam Beyer is a senior public policy major and is The Chronicle's Digital Strategy Team director.


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