The first thing many people notice about Darlene White is her sunny demeanor.
“Darlene White exemplifies the best of William & Mary by having a willing attitude and being so friendly,” said Liz Gentry, an administrative & fiscal manager at the Charles Center who has gotten to know White over the years.
An affable, talkative type, White pours her passion and positivity into her job as a lead custodian on William & Mary’s Historic Campus, including stewardship of the Wren Building.
But this fall, it was harder than ever for her to do that.
White’s mother, Veola Minns, contracted COVID-19 and died in October. It was a deeply painful time for White, who was already dealing with the challenges of performing custodial duties on campus during the pandemic.
“It was really hard. I was so stressed out,” said White, who was her mother’s primary caregiver. “I didn’t know if I wanted to go to work or not, but I made a promise to myself that this is what I signed up for when I applied for the job, and what happened happened. But that’s life, you know.”
White represents a William & Mary community that has faced the COVID-19 pandemic with strength and resilience.
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed, as she has been named a recipient of the Charles and Virginia Duke Award, which honors exemplary service to the university by someone who is not a student or instructional faculty member. She is one of two Duke Award winners, along with Manager of Academic & Degree Progress Wendy Urbano, who will be recognized during Commencement weekend.
“I’ve been here since day one of the pandemic, so I’ve been faithful,” White said.
White approaches her position with great care and a desire to make her buildings presentable to the many students, faculty, staff and visitors who walk through them on a daily basis.
That’s especially true of the Wren Building, an iconic symbol of the historic W&M campus that is a popular stop for visitors and the site of many of the university’s cherished traditions.
“Darlene White makes the Wren Building shine for us all,” said Susan Kern, executive director of Historic Campus.
White has worked in every building on campus in some form or fashion throughout her 31 years as a W&M employee, but she focuses her energy on the Historic Campus now. As lead custodian of the Wren Building, she opens the doors every morning; she polishes the brass fixtures and cleans every space, from classrooms and offices to the restrooms, stairways and entry ways.
But saying she simply keeps the building clean is an understatement.
“Darlene has refined the art of dusting massive cornices, deep window wells and raised paneling to keep presentable Wren’s architectural details that are richer than any others on campus and yet are allotted about the same amount of time for Darlene’s attention each week,” Kern said.
“She challenges the constraints of time and gravity to polish, sweep, dust and refine her care of the highly-demanding interior finishes and the imposing exterior requirements of Wren’s brick, wood and glass.”
A caring heart
White relishes her work, and she especially enjoys her teammates at William & Mary. A self-described people person – a claim backed up by the nomination letters submitted on her behalf – she is supportive of her co-workers and a friendly face to the many people she encounters on a daily basis.
Not only is White willing to help those with whom she works, but she also volunteers at the Williamsburg House of Mercy.
“I love the way she looks out for others and has a caring heart,” said her supervisor, LaShawnna Hill. “Not only does she care about the people on her team, but she does for others at William & Mary as well. You can also see by her work ethic that she cares about William & Mary. By working with her and seeing her attitude towards her work and William & Mary, her spirit exemplifies the core values of William & Mary.”
It was difficult at first for White to summon that same positivity after her mother’s death, but her work helped her cope with the pain.
“Work helped me out by keeping my mind off of what was going on,” said White, who also performs custodial duties in Blow Hall and the Brafferton kitchen, among other buildings. “I stayed busy and kept my mind on my job instead of sitting at home and stressing out.”
White enjoys the many responsibilities of her job, even if they require the occasional after-hours phone call. Her expertise is often sought. It’s not unusual for her to see a William & Mary extension pop up on her cell phone. In fact, she thought the call to inform her of her award was someone from work needing her help.
“I was shocked,” she said. “Everybody calls me when they have problems on campus, so I could be off and they still call me. Where is the key? Where is this? Where is that? Do you know this? Do you know that? That’s what I thought when they called to tell me.”
Her services are in demand. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“That’s why I picked the job, to be on the go,” White said. “When you say go, I go. I enjoy it.”