Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Hear part of this interview in a Gazette slideshow.
Don Thomas, better known as Donny, is a familiar face behind the grill at Sharples. The Daily Gazette sat down with this father of three and grandfather of three to discuss his past, and his unique perspectives on Swarthmore and on life in general.
DG: Could you give a brief overview of your life?
DT: I was born in Darby Township on August 3rd, 1956. It’s a suburb in Philadelphia. Basically, I was always like a happy person, like I was like always playing sports. I went to Temple a couple of years. After I got out of Temple I started doing a lot of community projects like coached football, then started coaching drill team. Coached football for like ten years, coached the drill team for like fourteen years. I’m a people person, I like hanging out with people, so that’s why I do community projects.
DG: You went to Temple?
DT: Yeah, took a night course, it was a two year program. I was an electroplater but I had to take up a chemical engineering course. I worked during the day and went to school at night.
DG: So how did you end up working here at Sharples?
DT: Well, [I ended up here] after going to Temple and being in metallurgy for seventeen years. Always, in my mind and always cooked in my life and always loved cooking. But there never really any money in cooking. Everybody says you need to go out and make a whole lot of money. It took me awhile, I had to struggle with it: do I want to make money or do I want to do what I love doing. But actually, I went to Spring Haven Country Club and learned how to cook there for fourteen years.
DG: When did you start working here?
DT: I’ve been working here for ten years. So I started here in 1998.
DG: So have you always worked behind they grill?
DT: I worked in every area in the kitchen.
DG: What made you choose the grill?
DT: It was the grill because I felt it was where I could best serve the students at. I love all my students, and I try to make them feel at home. I like talking to students, especially when they stressed out or depressed. Especially international students who feel like they are homesick since they are so far away from home they have no friends. I just try to make them feel relaxed.
DG: Any specific thoughts on Swarthmore?
DT: I love Swarthmore. It’s hard to explain man. A lot of people they get up in the morning and don’t look forward to going to work. I get up in the morning and I look forward to coming to work.
It’s my coworkers, the students, and the environment period. It’s a happy place.
DG: In ten years, have you noticed any changes at Swarthmore? Any changes in students?
DT: Yeah, when I first started working here it seemed like the students were more intense. It’s weird. The students today seem more relaxed. Because students back then were panicked when it came to taking tests or time to turn in papers. But the students now are just more relaxed. They still get the same thing done its just that the attitude has changed.
DG: Any favorite moments in the past ten years here?
DT: Oh man, so many good moments man.
DG: Any in particular?
DT: I guess when they put me on a shot glass and once I got to referee at pasta wrestling
DG: Pasta wrestling?
DT: It was a wrestling match at a pub nite. One of the seniors asked me to be referee. Two people wrestled in a pool of pasta and oil. (Laughs.) It was fun. Then when they put me on a shot glass. There were something like five shot glasses. They had the most recognizable people on campus put on the glasses. They put the president, the head dean on there. I was the only blue collar worker and it made me really happy. The senior class made them for a fundraiser.
DG: Any thoughts on politics?
DT: I try to stay away from politics. I just want to be happy healthy and wise. I’m pretty laid back, my goal in life was to make people happy. The only way I can make people happy is if I’m happy.
DG: Any thoughts on religion?
DT: I’m a Methodist. I believe in God but I don’t preach. Because I believe everyone has their own religion and I won’t force feed anyone my religion. Basically, I’m open to everything. I’m easy-going, whatever you into its good with me as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. You know, that kind of guy. You need somebody to talk to, I’m there. You want a special meal, I’ll see if I can get it for you. Anything I can do to make you happy. My wife says I get too carried away and I’m too nice though.
DG: Any final comments?
DT: Well I’ll do whatever I can do to help. But I’d like to spread the wealth around. Everyone is always paying attention to me since I work behind the grill, but there are a lot of good people you don’t see in the kitchen. It’d be nice to interview them and get to know them.
Note: As per Donny’s suggestion, the Daily Gazette will be interviewing one of Sharples’ chefs, Ben from Jamaica.