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Cook, Confidant, Community Leader

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more beloved figure at Swarthmore than Don “Donny” Thomas. For 18 years, he’s been the smiling face of Sharples Dining Hall, the person colleagues and students turn to when they need someone to brighten their day. Fresh off of grilling hundreds of lunches, he chopped it up with writer Ryan Dougherty.

What brought you to Swarthmore?

I always loved to cook and saw myself doing that, but there wasn’t much money in it. So I took jobs in metallurgy. I struggled with that: Do I want to make money, or do I want to love what I’m doing? Finally, I decided to go learn how to cook at the Springhaven Club in Wallingford, Pa., where I worked for 14 years. One of the cooks there left to work at Swarthmore, and she kept telling me to follow her. After three or four years, I finally took her advice. 


How have your responsibilities changed?

I’ve basically done every job in the kitchen. I started out washing dishes, but they moved me over to the salad
department, then line service, then meal prep, and then finally I got to cook. Now, you’ll usually find me at the grill. That’s where I was meant to be, since that’s where I can serve the students. 


Why is that interaction important to you?

I’m just a people person, and I try to make all my students feel at home. I like talking to them, especially when they’re stressed out or feeling down. I look out for my international students and freshmen in particular, since they’re far away from home and may not have made friends yet. I get to know most of them, and it’s a trip when they graduate, come back, and tell me about what they’re doing now. 



How have students showed their fondness for you?

One time, one of the seniors asked me to be a referee for a pasta-wrestling match on Pub Night. I was like, “What?! Just keep me out of trouble.” Another time, they put my face on a shot glass for a fundraiser. They had the most popular people on campus—the president, the head dean—and here I am, the only blue-collar worker. That made me really happy. 


What do you do in your spare time?

I coach a drill team of about 35 kids from where I live in Darby, Pa. We travel for performances, and they’ll come to Swarthmore with the Rhythm N Motion dance company. Or we’ll bring a carload of kids to see a Swarthmore basketball game. I want to put positive examples and thoughts in their heads, to have them see college kids and think, “I want to do that someday.” 


What makes you smile?

A lot of people wake up and don’t look forward to coming to work, but not me. I can’t believe I get paid to do what I’m doing. I come to work in a good frame of mind, and I don’t let too much get to me. And I just love Swarthmore, man. It’s my co-workers, the students, and the environment here, really. It’s just a very happy place.