Weekday mornings might seem like a drag, but at Pitchfork’s you’ll see why people call Micheala Lee the nicest person on campus. The beloved cashier is best known around Duke for her joyful yet genuine personality.
“She only has love and positivity for everybody,” said first-year Tess DiMenna, who goes to Pitchfork’s almost every day. “And I think that's why she is so beloved by so many students, because it's such genuine care and love.”
From the moment she started working at the iconic Duke eatery in February 2020, Lee tried her best to learn students’ names. (Her own name is pronounced mih-kay-LAY, not mih-kay-LUH, although she’s too kind to correct people who mispronounce it.) Back then, to know when your food was ready, you’d have to listen for a Pitchfork’s employee to holler out your order number. But instead of just calling out numbers, Lee made a point to ask each student for their name and to write it down on the order ticket.
“I felt like people were more than numbers, so I’d ask for their names instead and call them out by their names,” she said.
Last fall, she committed to memorizing the name of every student she serves. After just one or two visits, she’ll recognize your (half-masked) face and greet you by name as she locates your order. On the off chance she happens to forget or mistake you for someone else, she’ll effusively apologize and promise to get it next time.
“She loves you all, she talks about y’all all the time,” said Annette Lyons, Lee’s mother. “She’ll tell me, ‘Ma, I forgot one of their names, and I was so embarrassed!’ And I tell her, ‘Mick, if you forgot one name, you're doing good.’”
Lee’s warmth and friendliness have made her popular with her customers. In March, Duke Dining named Lee a “Dynamite Dining Devil” of the week, a superlative given to a Duke Dining employee for “for going above and beyond in the workplace.”
Lee exudes optimism and empathy, but at 30 years old, the road that brought her here has been, in her words, “really, really, really rocky.” She’s a single mother of three children—she had her first just after graduating high school—and they don’t have a very robust support network in the area.
What gets her through each day is the love she receives from her children and from the students she serves.
“I have a few friends from childhood who’ve said, ‘I don't know how you made it, and even still with a smile on your face,’” Lee said. “I’ve battled the toughest of battles, but knowing that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel kept me going. Knowing that I have to be there for my kids kept me going.”
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Lee exudes optimism and empathy, but at 30 years old, the road that brought her here has been, in her words, “really, really, really rocky.” Photo by Winnie Lu.
The ‘really, really, really’ rocky road
A native Durhamite, Lee grew up in Walltown just north of East Campus, and her mother Annette worked at Duke in various campus eateries. She fondly remembers going to work with her mother and feeling inspired by all the students on campus. After seeing how much joy her mother brought to the students with her service, and how much love she received in return, Lee aspired to serve others and to brighten their days with that same cheerful energy. Sometimes, during slow parts of the day, she got to stand on a milk crate and serve students at the cash register.
“I wish I could go back to those days,” Lee said.
Growing up wasn’t always easy, though. Annette’s first marriage was “really rough” on Lee and her older siblings, and the family didn’t have a great support system. Lee was quiet and kept to herself.
When she enrolled at Durham’s Riverside High School, though, Lee started to find herself. She dug into her passion for dance. She’d been dancing since she was eight years old, but in high school she started taking classes in ballet, hip-hop, modern, jazz and lyrical. Also during her first year, she met her best friend Courtnee Baysmore, who remains her “bestie” to this day.
Baysmore describes her friend as the calm, cool and collected one, whereas she can sometimes get flustered and frustrated. She said Lee has always been the person she could go to for support and advice and even financial assistance or a place to stay.
“She's the type that would actually, if she could, take her heart out and give it to you,” Baysmore said.
Baysmore also took dance classes with Lee, but she admitted her friend was the more talented of the two of them. They would practice the routines for hours, sometimes late into the night, and Lee would not give up until Baysmore had mastered the moves.
“Don’t tell her I told you, but she was the best,” Baysmore said. “She’s one of the best dancers I know, and she could’ve had any scholarship anywhere she wanted to go.”
Lee had big hopes of going to college, moving to New York City and becoming a professional dancer or choreographer. She dreamed of dancing on Broadway. But despite getting nearly straight A’s in high school and having great relationships with some of her teachers, Lee didn’t apply to college. She couldn’t get a ride to take her SAT exam, and she didn’t know how to fill out financial aid or admissions applications on her own.
“I felt like no one cared at that moment,” she said. She ended up graduating early, the only one of her siblings to finish high school.
Almost immediately after graduating, she fell in love with a man. It felt like a fairy tale, Lee said, and he loved her more than anyone had in months. Eight months later, she was married at age 18 and expecting a child, her daughter Jaiya, who’s now 11. Shortly after, she was pregnant with her second child, her 10-year-old son John. But her marriage started crumbling after they moved from North Carolina to Maryland to be closer to her husband’s family. When the relationship reached a breaking point, Lee knew she had to do what was best for her children.
After their complicated divorce, Lee was left with a newborn daughter and a son on the way. “I can’t remember a time that I didn’t cry myself to sleep when I was pregnant with John,” she said. “I wish I could go back and talk to my younger self and tell her, ‘You can do this. You don't have to take this.’”
She was ‘put on this earth to help everyone’
Lee has grown a lot in the last 10 years. She said her divorce and being a single mother taught her resilience. She started to view every challenge as a learning opportunity and every bad day as a reminder of how good the good days were. She valued disagreements, because those were opportunities for her to put herself in someone else’s shoes and empathize with them.
She wishes her children could have had this version of her as their mother when they were babies.
Bringing joy to people through service is now her life’s passion, in addition to raising her children. Before working at Pitchfork’s, she served breakfast at the Hilton Garden Inn on Main Street. Many of her customers were patients at Duke Hospital and their families, and some of them were regulars. She kept in touch with some of them long-term, and it was always hard when a family would come back from the hospital without their loved one.
“It was more than just serving breakfast, I was actually trying to be everything I could be for them,” Lee said.
If she found out it was a customer’s birthday or wedding anniversary, she would sometimes leave out the back door and buy cards and balloons or flowers and chocolates to surprise them and make their day brighter. In return, patrons at the Hilton would bring her tokens of their appreciation or leave special notes on their receipts for her. Students at Duke also bring her notes and little gifts, such as candies, to show their love.
“I think she was put on this earth to help everyone, literally, because that's what she has done since I've known her,” Baysmore said. “I'm so blessed to be her friend.”
Her popularity and constant cheerfulness can also make her a target. She was laid off from a previous job for being “too friendly” and making other people “uncomfortable,” she said. Even at Pitchfork’s, she sometimes feels unheard or unseen by her coworkers and supervisors, and she’s even thought of quitting her job on occasion when it all feels like too much.
But on her crummiest days, the students are the reason why she gets up and comes to work.
“I appreciate all the love you guys give to me,” she said, choking up with tears. “It makes the biggest difference in the world.”